Discovery Launches Final Time, Marking the Close End of NASA
Nearly twelve years ago, Space Shuttle Discovery made its first launch into space, docking onto the International Space Station on May 29, 1999. But now, with only two possible launches left within NASA’s shuttle program, Discovery has flown its final mission and will eventually retire to the Smithsonian.
The space shuttle program, after running for nearly 30 years, is now slated for termination in June 2011, assuming that the Atlantis shuttle would go through with its additional launch. If not, then the program will officially end with the last installation of the International Space Station, put into place by shuttle Endeavour in April.
In early 2010, President Obama heavily reduced the NASA budget, additionally cutting the Constellation program, which was to replace the shuttle program once it ended. After already investing $9 billion into the Ares I rocket, the government switched nearly $6 billion dollars over to funding for the development of a commercial spacecraft and advancement of space technology. However, the budget does not allocate funding for additional space exploration.
The tentatively scheduled June launch for Atlantis comes after the government approved the mission, but has not provided any funding for the final launch.
Whether or not Atlantis actually takes off, the ending of the space shuttle program (debatably between April and June), will be a devastating loss to thousands of NASA workers. The United Space Alliance, which worked in partnership with NASA, cut 1,200 jobs in October 2010, before the program even ended. Overall, NASA may let go about 8,000 employees, mainly from the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson Centers.
This massive cut of jobs comes as no surprise to NASA employees, who were warned six years ago by President George W. Bush that the program would end in 2010. And while many are losing their jobs, there are several staying behind to continue their positions at NASA, including former astronauts now working on Mission Control for Discovery’s last expedition.
One Astronaut’s Journey Upon Discovery:
The sun shines down upon Discovery, which sits gleaming, waiting, and attached to its rocket fuel booster on the launch pad. Millions of Americans flip their TV channels on an early March evening, awaiting the launch of STS-119. The seven astronauts sit ready in the cockpit as the time ticks away behind them. NASA gives the all clear, the rocket fuel boosters ignite, and Discovery takes off into the fading blue and orange sky.
On March 15, 2009, shuttle Discovery lifted off for its 36 flight, and the 28 total to the International Space Station. Aboard was Clear Lake student Carrie Arnold’s father, Mission Specialist Richard Arnold.
Arnold spent 12 hours 34 minutes total outside the spacecraft in two separate space walks after training for his journey to space for about a year and a half.
“Our main job was installing a truss segment that contained the last set of solar arrays. The truss was about the size of a school bus. The solar arrays provide power to the ISS. Our other space walk was largely maintenance and repair,” said Arnold.
After having flown in orbit for roughly 12 days, Arnold now works on Mission Control for his carrier to space’s last mission.
“Discovery is an amazing vehicle with an impressive history,” said Arnold.
Although there are few plans for Arnold to return to space again, he may eventually have the opportunity to fly to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz.
With the ending of the shuttle program releasing numerous NASA workers, Arnold is concerned with America’s return to space.
“It is true that we need a new vehicle that can leave Earth orbit (the shuttles can’t leave orbit), but after the shuttle retires it could be many years before the United States has access to space again.” Arnold said.
As Arnold helps to control Discovery’s current and last pilgrimage, he believes that his carrier to space should eventually retire to the Smithsonian.
“I grew up near the Smithsonian and used to go there pretty regularly while I was growing up. I think it will be cool to one day go back and see the space ship I flew on sitting there on display,” said Arnold.
Having flown as an astronaut on Shuttle Discovery, Arnold has quite an emotional connection to the she ship, and the shuttle program as a whole.
“I find [the shuttle program ending] a bit sad,” said Arnold.