Discovery waits for her final flight

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2011 4:00 pm

NASA just posted this lovely picture of the Space Shuttle Discovery sitting on its pad, awaiting the command to light her engines and take her final flight into space.

[Click to embiggen.]

The picture was taken a couple of weeks ago; note the thin crescent Moon on the left.

In fact, the sight of the Moon and the Orbiter together makes me a little sad. The Shuttles can’t get Americans back there, and barring this and one more flight of Endeavour later this year, it’ll be a while before we can put humans into space at all. But I still think that we can once again make our presence known in space. And next time, I hope it’s to stay.

Discovery is due to launch tomorrow, Thursday, at 16:50 Eastern time.

Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Related posts:

Fanning the flames of the near future
Ten years of the International Space Station
Challenger astronauts memorialized on the Moon
Congress passes NASA authorization bill but I’d rather watch sausages being made


Comments (41)

  1. CB

    That really is a beautiful picture, it seems to speak of great potential.

    And indeed there certainly is a lot of potential contained in those SRBs and the fuel tank.

  2. Eric C

    Atlantis has one more launch, too!

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great photo. Very poignant & bittersweet.

    I wish the Shuttles could fly forever.

    I know they can’t but wish they could.

    Even more I wish there wasn’t this gap and that we had something better replacing them immediately – & I wish we could still send people to the Moon and beyond.

    What an sorry ending – at least for the time being & yegods let’s hope its NOT a permanent one as I fear it may turn out to be – for the US manned space program so far.

    We could land on that Moon once.
    We were space leaders once.
    Not beggars on other nations,
    former and perhaps future enemies and private companies that are yet to really take off. :-(

    I wonder what JFK would say if he were around to witness this?
    Now *John Fitzgerald Kennedy* was a great orator and a great President.


    “This [space] is the new ocean and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none.”
    – President John F. Kennedy after John Glenn’s first orbits in ‘Friendship-7’ on Feb. 20th 1962.

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    @2. Eric C :

    for you & others that are wondering.

    I hope the Atlantis gets one more flight but it will depend on funding.

  5. jrpowell

    LCN (Lunar Colony Now!)

  6. Daniel

    If anyone’s interested, Playstation has advertised that they will be broadcasting the launch live from Playstation Home on the PS3.

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Thanks for the memories Discovery – have a great successful flight & safe return.

    Thanks for launching the Hubble Space Telescope, the Ulysses solar polar probe and flying the aged hero John Glenn back into space. Thanks for flying Adelaide’s own Andy Thomas into orbit and up to the International Space Station on his third flight. Thanks for all that & so much more.


    Countdown clock currently : Zero days, 21 hours, 12 minutes & 50 seconds till launch.

  8. Joshua

    @4. Messier Tidy Upper:
    I see your wikipedia, and raise you NASA (
    From NASA release on Thu, 20 Jan 2011:
    “The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to conduct the STS-135 mission. The Space Shuttle Program has added the mission to the manifest to prepare for a potential target launch date of June 28.”
    They’re training for this mission right now, have a baseline for the mission, and even have a patch designed. So as far as NASA’s concerned, they’re going.

  9. Robert Carver, MA

    I have returned to the Eastern coast of Florida once again to hopefully view the launch of Discovery live and in person from KSC. I was here in November and while I was disappointed that Discovery didn’t launch due to the GUCP (and Stringer) issue I understand that safety triumphs our convenience. Tomorrow the forecast is for sunny skies with a high of 82… perfect weather for a launch. While I sit at Kennedy Space Center awaiting the launch I will walk around this great facility named in honor of our fallen President to honor his historic leadership thinking about his inspirational Rice University speech and how we have lost our way since those heady times when we felt we really could boldly go where no one had gone before.

    “If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

    Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

    Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

    We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

    There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

    We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

  10. John Baxter

    I’m sad about the final flight of Discovery and penultimate shuttle flight, but…the reality is that the birds are old and tired, and not the best way to get people up there. (Heavy large cargo, yes.)

    Fly well, Discovery, and return safely.

  11. The launch is scheduled for 16:50? But my clock only goes up to 12:59!

  12. Vaish

    Such a great view, and its so going to be out of the world! I just wish it had men inside.. Sad that its not happening anytime soon.

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    D’oh I forgot to mention in # 7 :

    The fourth & last space flight of my hometown’s astronaut Andy Thomas – and more importantly the “return to flight” mission after the loss of the Columbia keeping the Shuttle going.

    Thankyou again Discovery for that & everything else you’ve done. You’ve been a great ship and served your nation, the space exploration and astronomical communities and the world so well. :-)

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 12. NCC-1701Z : Not on 24 hr time then, huh? Guess you’ll have to settle for watching the lift off at ten minutes to five in the evening. :-)

    @9. Joshua : @4. Messier Tidy Upper : I see your wikipedia, and raise you NASA

    Okay, you win! Which is great because I win too as does everyone else who is keen to see as many Shuttle launches as possible! Thanks. 8)

    @10. Robert Carver, MA : Thanks for that. Great speech by one of the USA’s – and the World’s – best ever Presidents. JFK certainly had the Right Stuff. :-)


    Countdown clock currently : Zero days, 14 hours, 45 minutes & 18 seconds till launch.

  15. Monu

    @jrpowell(#5): Even though this is a very long term dream, I can help but mention this here:

    I wonder if Dr. Plait has seen or written about this study on his blog.

  16. toasterhead

    It will be sad to see them go – I’ll miss watching them launch and land. The last two minutes of the countdown – with the engines gimbaling and the flaps flapping and the sparks flying and the water falling into the sound suppression tank and the SSMEs firing up into three perfect blue cones before the SRBs light up and billow with smoke – is one of the most exciting sights on Earth.

    But they do need to go. I wouldn’t drive a car that was thirty years old, well past warranty, and couldn’t receive spare parts because the companies that made them all went out of business. I certainly wouldn’t drive a launch vehicle like that.

  17. Gary

    This reminds me of the sci-fi work of J. G. Ballard, with his evocations of a post-space age culture, its long abandonded launching pads slowly rusting away, choked by weeds, with only a few old men who can still remember the glory days when their leaders had great vision and their skilled and brave people could make them happen. With the rise in the U.S. of creationism, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and anti-science, the American dream is now finally and forever dead. :(

  18. It’s a lovely photo, and a shame that it’s symbolic of the ending of manned space flight. The cresent moon just adds to it’s poignancy.

    Leamington Spa, England

  19. JR

    I heard an interesting suggestion on what to do with the orbiters once they’re retired: fill them with velociraptor skeletons in spacesuits, and then launch them out of the solar system.

    Think about it.

  20. Gus Snarp

    Anyone know if this will be televised? I know the public (and the media) are pretty bored with shuttle launches, but it is the last one, after all. I remember when the shuttle launch was the only thing on T.V. I’d love to see it, even if only on T.V. And I don’t have a Playstation.

  21. CameronSS

    @21: You can watch the launch live on NASA TV, that’s where I’ll be.

    I keep hearing about how Discovery is the shuttle that’s done the most, Discovery was the first one back up after both Challenger and Columbia, Discovery has completed all these firsts… why Discovery? Why didn’t they use the other orbiters as much as Discovery? Is the particular Discovery orbiter lighter, more reliable, something else?

  22. Michel

    Another great era ticking towards it´s past.

  23. Gus Snarp

    @CameronSS – Thanks!

  24. toasterhead

    20. JR Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 8:08 am
    I heard an interesting suggestion on what to do with the orbiters once they’re retired: fill them with velociraptor skeletons in spacesuits, and then launch them out of the solar system.

    Greenlit. We have to make this happen.

    Alternately, launch them on a trajectory that will bring them back to Earth in, say, 150 years. If the current anti-science trend in education holds up, I expect the dinosaur astronauts will make the history textbooks, right after the chapter about how the dinosaurs didn’t make it onto the Ark.

  25. RwFlynn

    #1. CB
    “And indeed there certainly is a lot of potential contained in those SRBs and the fuel tank.”

    Nice one. I just had to acknowledge that.

  26. pk_boomer

    Now I have a new desktop image.

  27. Gus Snarp

    Just realized that there’s still another shuttle mission after this one. All these “final flights” are confusing me. So it’s Discovery’s final flight, but there’s still an Endeavor mission scheduled.

  28. toasterhead

    Might be a scrub today. Problems with the Range Safety Officers’ computer system. Probably the most mis-named job in spaceflight – they’re the people that blow the Shuttle up if it goes off course.

    Update: RSO is go.

    Go Discovery go!

  29. Elias

    Discovery launched with 2 seconds left in its window. A beautiful, picture-perfect launch.

  30. toasterhead

    Did anyone else see a tile or something fall off about five minutes into the flight? Hope it didn’t hit the wing…

  31. nancyem

    Goosebumps! What a gorgeous launch.

  32. Orlando

    I’ve seen it too. I think they’d look for some possible damage.

  33. contemna

    I saw the debris too. (I watched the live stream in HD) but it isn’t showing so well in the lower res videos posted to youtube. You can sort of make it out at 5:05 here:
    I hope it wasn’t a tile, and I hope it didn’t hit a tile. You can bet on the image analysts poring over this. They will have an answer soon. I just hope they share that answer.

  34. The BA says: “it’ll be a while before we can put humans into space at all. ”

    Well that’s a bit Amero-centric. The Russians can still loft people into orbit with their 50+ year old technology (although I understand that they got rid of the vacuum tubes some time ago).

    – Jack

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Jack Hagerty : I’m guessing that the “we” there = the Western world, perhaps even only the USA & NOT Russia. Or China for that matter. 😉

  36. 36. Messier Tidy Upper Says: “I’m guessing that the “we” there = the Western world, perhaps even only the USA & NOT Russia. Or China for that matter.”

    Don’t forget Space-X. While I wouldn’t ride on it (yet), they have proved they can do what was thought impossible, to launch a man rated (well, at least man-ratable) spacecraft into orbit and recover it using only private capital. Wow.

    – Jack

  37. Atheist Panda

    Sad that the opportunity to see a live Shuttle launch will soon be a thing of the past. I visited the US in Aug 2001 to see STS-105, but bad planning on my part meant that, when the launch was rescheduled to the day of my flight home, I was unable to go….. I’ll always regret that. :(

  38. Messier Tidy Upper

    @37. Jack Hagerty :

    Don’t forget Space-X. While I wouldn’t ride on it (yet), they have proved they can do what was thought impossible, to launch a man rated (well, at least man-ratable) spacecraft into orbit and recover it using only private capital. Wow.

    Okay Jack perhaps “we” only = NASA? 😉

    Mind you, I’ve yet to witness the Space-X capsule fly and even when we do – hopefully – see that, it ain’t no Shuttle.

    We won’t see the likes of Discovery fly again for a long time* to come. :-(


    * After the next & last two Space Shuttle launches and landings of course.

  39. Joseph G

    It’s sad that the Shuttle program is winding down and NASA never tried that idea to use those external tanks as “wet workshops”. Imagine how much free space the ISS would have if they had 50 or 60 ETs up there to play with! Or they could have just tied them together, put them in their own orbit and used them to test out rotational simulated gravity schemes.
    One nice illustration of an ET utilization scenario is David Brin’s short story Tank Farm Dynamo (you can see it here: ). The story is actually a bit more of a physics primer and an illustration of how petty politics can ruin great projects, but it’s still a fun read.

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Joseph G : Thanks. Great story that one. :-)

    Wish we’d do something like it in reality..


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