Shuttle Discovery launch marks the beginning of the end

The Space Shuttle program launched Discovery Mission 131, one of 4 remaining flights of the Shuttle Program. Should it be saved?
Written by Doug Hanchard, Contributor

This morning's launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery marks the second to last scheduled launch of the Shuttle, one of four remaining launches prior to the Shuttle's retirement. It costs roughly $500 million for each launch. Each Orbiter cost $1.7 billion not including spare parts. The program is now in  38 years old from the time President Nixon initiated a spacecraft that could be reused in 1972. The first shuttle Enterprise signaled a new era in space exploration. By the time Columbia launched in 1981, questions were already being raised: What's the Shuttle's mission?

The Shuttle has never left earth's orbit, its role simplified to be a space tow truck to broken satellites and cargo container delivery mechanism to the International Space Station. Since the Shuttle program began, each White House Administration's agenda never prioritized or put into place long term NASA mandates and became occupied with more pressing issues; thus, NASA has wandered aimlessly with far too many internal agendas of its own and not enough focus on a select few. NASA throughout the entire space shuttle program has been rather boring to cover unless disaster struck which it did twice with the loss of Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003 respectively. Even the 'simple' missions with unmanned missions to Mars have been ridiculed with the famous math errors engineers mixing metric and imperial measurement systems.

There's been talk of extending the Space Shuttle program. Politicians in Florida don't care about the optics of preserving assets in their backyard. So there's no surprise that Florida Senator Bill Nelson included funding to extend the Shuttle's mission in the Senate Budget Committee legislation in early 2009. Prior to that attempt H.R. 4837 had provisions submitted by Congressman Dave Weldon of Florida's 15th district to extend funding and a proposal that no foreign space ships may exclusively resupply ISS . That was in 2008 and has never made it past committee review. Other attempts to restart funding have come and gone. With the current economic crisis, NASA has a momentum problem. Even the proposed Constellation program is mired in controversy and was not included in the 2010 or 2011 budget.

The last remaining shuttle missions are:

Date: May 14 + Mission: STS-132 Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center - Launch Pad 39A Launch Time: 2:28 p.m. EDT Description: Space shuttle Atlantis mission will carry an integrated cargo carrier to deliver maintenance and assembly hardware, including spare parts for space station systems. In addition, the second in a series of new pressurized components for Russia, a Mini Research Module, will be permanently attached to the bottom port of the Zarya module.

Date: July 29 + Mission: STS-134 Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center - Launch Pad 39A Launch Time: 7:51 a.m. EDT STS-134 Description: Space shuttle Endeavour will deliver an EXPRESS Logistics Carrier-3 (ELC-3) and an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station.

Date: Sept. 16 + Mission: STS-133 Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Discovery Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center - Launch Pad 39A Launch Time: 11:57 a.m. EDT STS-133 Description: Space shuttle Discovery will deliver the Express Logistics Carrier 4 (ELC4), a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MLPM) and critical spare components to the International Space Station.

Do you have any memorable moments to share over the past 29 years of space shuttle flight? Share them in a talk back.

Thanks to brewakeg for helping me find one of the more dazzling launches of Discovery STS-119 on March 15, 2009 uploaded to Youtube.com

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