Posted by: Dissol on Nov 08, 2010
Following on from The Pianist's excellent post about the upcoming (although delayed) final mission for the Space Shuttle Discovery, I thought it was worth just taking a moment to celebrate this amazing vehicle's life. It really is a special vehicle, even compared to its sister ships in the Space Shuttle fleet.
The whole space shuttle programme is amazing. I have followed space travel from being a youngster, allowed to stay up late to watch the Apollo Missions at school, on a tiny black & white TV set. Those rockets were huge...massive affairs, and yet they were basically disposable. This huge rocket went up, and all that came back was a tiny capsule, just big enough to squeeze 3 people inside…
The Space shuttles changed all that. As a qualified glider pilot myself, I find it thrilling that the fastest "aircraft" is a glider, as it returns to earth, it does so as a glider (although it isn't going to catch any thermals on the way down!!!). But the vehicle is reusable, even the solid booster rockets are reused.
But aside from being a glider, basically the shuttle is a truck. It has a huge cargo bay, which can take stuff into space. That stuff can be people, provisions, and new parts for the Space Station (Discovery also visited the old Russian space station - Mir), or satellites. One of the most important missions that Discovery did was to launch the Hubble telescope, which has given scientists vast amounts of new data about the Universe, and how it came to be. It also was the shuttle used after both the Shuttle disasters (Challenger & Columbia) for the "return to flight" missions. It has travelled almost 143,000,000 miles, 38 missions, orbited the earth 5,628 times spending, in total almost a year of its life in space. Its first launch was in August 1984, which probably makes it older than quite a few MyDLers!!
Of course, space exploration has its critics. Many people will moan and suggest that for the same money, we could have built hospitals, schools, etc. Yes, that myopic view is valid, but at the same time, those people have to ignore all the huge benefits that we enjoy directly as a result of space exploration. Just thinking about one mission that Discovery made - launching the Hubble telescope comes to mind. The scientists involved in designing the Hubble telescope had to come up with a new method of recording images - film would not be viable (although earlier satellites have used film, which would be 'dropped' back down to earth!). They had to design a component that would be cheap and light to manufacture to record digital images. They basically invented the chip which almost all of us use when we take digital photos, either with a camera, or using our phones. That cheap chip came about directly from the research into building the Hubble telescope. Now just imagine how big the total market is for digital cameras… Almost every single photo you see nowadays is a digital photo. They, rapidly, have become just part of our lives. An essential part for many people. All because of space exploration...and that was a side-line!!!
So thank you Discovery! Named after a variety of famous ships that carried out historical exploration. Scott & Shackelton, (not that long ago, really in human history) went on the RMS Discovery to explore Antarctica. The Space Shuttle has continued that human exploration of the unknown. I am looking forward to the replacements with excitement. I am looking forward to what the next phases of human exploration will bring us.