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As Discovery Prepares To Lift Off, A Question: What Will Inspire Kids Now?

Discovery, on the launch pad earlier today (Feb. 24, 2011), at the the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Discovery, on the launch pad earlier today (Feb. 24, 2011), at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. John Raoux/AP hide caption

itoggle caption John Raoux/AP

It's just a few hours before the scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The skies are blue and a few puffy, cumulus clouds continue to drift across the launch pad. Despite months of delays, NASA says all systems are a "go" for a 4:50 p.m. ET liftoff.

This is the 39th and final flight of Discovery. There's a lot of history here. Discovery carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. It was also the first to dock with the Russian space station Mir. It flew the first sitting member of Congress into space (Republican Sen. Jake Garn of Utah) and also returned former Mercury astronaut, Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, to orbit as well. Discovery has flown more than any other spacecraft and after this mission, NASA plans to launch just two more shuttles (Endeavour and Atlantis) before retiring the fleet.

As I type this inside NASA's News Center, and just a few miles from where Discovery sits pointing skyward, it's easy to see this is a bittersweet day for NASA and others who have lined the Space Coast to watch spacecraft blast off for years.

I grew up in Southwest Florida and even though my home was hundreds of miles away from Cape Canaveral, you could still watch the pinprick of light and bright white contrail as a shuttle thundered into orbit. I've read dozens of books about American's spaceflight program: from the early, pre-Sputnik years, to the modern-day voyagers exploring planets and comets in our solar system and beyond. I well remember where I was when Challenger exploded just after liftoff in 1986 and when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry above Texas in 2003.

But now that NASA enters a new phase, I wonder where the children of today will get their inspirations for the outer space of tomorrow. Will it come from private space flights? Can a child's imagination be stoked by spaceflights driven more by profit than science?

For the six astronauts getting ready to board Discovery today, none of that matters. They're gearing up for their shuttle's final flight to the International Space Station. Thousands of people are already crowding the beaches and nearby roadways to cheer on one of the last flights of America's aging Space Shuttle transport system.

(Russell Lewis is NPR's Southern Bureau chief. NASA offers several ways to monitor Discovery's mission at its website.)

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