With final repairs complete, NASA has cleared Space Shuttle Discovery for its 39th and final launch on 3 November. If all goes according to plan, mission STS-133 will begin when the shuttle lifts off the launch pad at 3:52 PM. Update: Electrical issues have delayed the launch until 4 November at 3:29 PM
Though all five shuttle orbiters have flow signature missions, NASA praises Discovery as “unique among the extraordinary.” The shuttle has flown more often and carried more crewmembers into space than any other in the fleet. In anticipation of this last launch, Nature takes a look at some highlights in Discovery’s 26-year legacy:
Click images to enlarge
STS-41-D (30 August, 1984): Discovery’s first mission, in which it deployed three communication satellites.
STS-26 (29 September, 1988): Following the Challenger disaster in January 1986, Discovery went up into space as the first shuttle mission in nearly three years.
STS-31 (24 April, 1990): After launch, Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope in a 380-mile orbit above the Earth. The telescope has since become a vital research tool for astronomers and its iconic images have inspired a generation.
STS-60 (3 February, 1994): Led by future NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the crew of this mission included the first Russian to be launched into orbit in an American spacecraft, Sergei K. Krikalev.
STS-82 (11 February, 1997): The second in a series of service missions to Hubble, crewmembers installed new instruments, including the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), the first to observe the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet.
STS-91 (2 June, 1998): Discovery completed the final docking mission between a US space shuttle and Russia’s Mir space station before it was deorbited in 2001.
STS-92 (11 October, 2000): During NASA’s 100th space shuttle mission, Discovery brought into orbit the Z-1 Truss, the first backbone piece of the International Space Station.
STS-114 (26 July, 2005): After the 2003 Columbia disaster, this was the first shuttle flight to return to space in more than two years.
STS-128 (28 August, 2009): This mission brought the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT) into space, a treadmill named after Steven Colbert, after his followers helped him to receive the most entries in a contest to name the new machinery.
And if you’re wondering what NASA will do with Discovery after it is retired, the agency plans to offer it to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, though the cost of moving and preparing the orbiter for public display – estimated at well over $25 million – could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for the indefatigable Discovery .