Space Shuttle Discovery Lands For Last Time
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Today in Florida, the space shuttle Discovery made a safe return from orbit and landed for the last time. Here's NASA commentator Josh Byerly as the shuttle rolled down the runway.
Mr. JOSH BYERLY (Commentator, NASA): And to the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say farewell Discovery.
BLOCK: It was Discovery's final flight, leaving NASA with just two more missions before it retires the space shuttle fleet for good.
NPR's Russell Lewis reports from the Kennedy Space Center.
RUSSELL LEWIS: Shortly after Discovery landed, the six astronauts walked out and surveyed the massive ship. Discovery first flew in 1984 and has completed more missions than any other: 39.
It was the third flight aboard Discovery for Commander Steve Lindsey, who says he's amazed by the craft's great condition.
Commander STEVE LINDSEY (Discovery Space Shuttle, NASA): And if you think about a vehicle that's 26, 27 years old, been flying for that long, to come back perfect, I have never seen an airplane be able to do that.
LEWIS: Even senior NASA managers concede the ship could fly again and again. Bill Gerstenmaier, associate space operations manager for NASA, says that's not an option, and it's not the end. The agency has to launch Endeavour next month and Atlantis in June.
Mr. BILL GERSTENMAIER (Associate Space Operations Manager, NASA): We've got two more flights. We need to keep the focus on those flights and stay diligent and keep working those flights just as hard as we did this flight.
LEWIS: Gerstenmaier says space flight is never routine. He pointed to the failed launch last week of a climate satellite that never made it to orbit after its launch from California.
Mr. GERSTENMAIER: Spaceflight doesn't come easy, as we all know. I think last week we got a chance to see that with the Taurus XO and the Glory Mission, that things that are even fairly simple to us and we think we fully understood, we obviously didn't understand.
LEWIS: Now that Discovery will no longer fly to space, NASA plans to do an autopsy of sorts: stripping the shuttle down and peering inside to see how parts of the craft have held up after dozens of flights. Again, Bill Gerstenmaier.
Mr. GERSTENMAIER: So we're going to take really the best of what we've got here, learn as much as we can from this, archive it. So then when we go build the next generation, we'll actually have really learned everything we can from these vehicles.
LEWIS: Still, NASA employees have begun to deal with what it means to wind the shuttle program down. Launch director Mike Leinbach says the end is difficult.
Mr. MIKE LEINBACH (Launch Director, NASA): Walking around and listening to the comments the people were making pretty much all heard that - what a great ship this, can't believe the program is coming to an end yet. But intellectually, we all know it is. And so it's kind of a delicate balance emotionally to deal with that.
Mr. BYERLY: And Houston, Discovery, for the final time, wheels stop.
LEWIS: And while Discovery's space days are over, it has one more flight to take: atop a modified Boeing 747, most likely on its way to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum for public display.
Russell Lewis, NPR News, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
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