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Era of Expansion
Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang had their work cut out for them.

With mission STS-116 drawing to an end, time was running out to retract the P6 solar array. It had to be retracted completely to allow station assembly to continue.

STS-98 crew receive key to the Destiny lab The world waited as the two mission specialists used their gloved hands to work the kinks out of the balky array in the vacuum of space. Finally, after six-and-a-half hours, controllers applauded as the arrays were retracted and safely tucked away.

That spacewalk represents a triumph over adversity that exemplifies the NASA spirit. As we stand on the edge of a new challenge, we reflect on some of the highlights of NASA's many achievements since the turn of the new century.

Image right: In the Space Station Processing Facility workers and STS-98 crew gather for a ceremony to turn over the key for the U.S. Lab Destiny to NASA. Photo credit NASA/KSC
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Assembly of the International Space Station took center stage early in the decade. As the space shuttle fleet carried new residents and hardware to the station, high-flying construction crews expanded the orbiting lab's capabilities.

The STS-101 mission marked the first servicing mission. Mission STS-92, the 100th shuttle flight, delivered the Z-1 truss segment. Subsequent missions brought the installation of the Destiny lab, the first crew shift change in orbit, and other station components.

During the same period, NASA's Launch Services Program launched several spacecraft on expendable vehicles. Many were Earth-observing spacecraft, including a series of weather forecasting satellites. A host of scientific and planetary missions featured the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and Genesis.

The HETE-2 launch in 2000 marked NASA's remotely managed liftoff and first launch from the Kwajalein Missile Range in the South Pacific.

The NASA family came together after foam from Space Shuttle Columbia's external tank punctured the orbiter's left wing during launch, leading to the loss of seven astronauts and Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. The shuttle fleet was grounded as the agency coped with the loss and began working on safety improvements and modifications.

Opportunity's mobility being tested before launch Image left: The Mars Exploration Rover-2 known as Opportunity, is tested for mobility and maneuverability. Opportunity is one of two identical rovers designed to explore different regions of the Martian landscape. Photo credit NASA/KSC
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The year was highlighted by the launches of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The duo lifted off on separate vehicles one month apart during the summer of 2003 and embarked on a journey to the red planet.

Spirit descended through the Martian atmosphere on Jan. 4, 2004, and quickly began beaming breathtaking photographs to delighted scientists on Earth. Spirit's twin, Opportunity, followed with a landing on Jan. 25.

On Jan. 14, only 10 days after Spirit's arrival at Mars, President George W. Bush announced the nation's Vision for Space Exploration: to build new vehicles for journeys to the moon and beyond.

The first step -- returning the shuttle fleet safely to flight and completing the station -- prompted extensive shuttle and external tank upgrades and redesigns.

"Changes to the external tank gave us confidence," explained Discovery Flow Director Stephanie Stilson. "In addition, modifications such as the orbiter boom subsystem and wing leading edge sensor system, gave us the ability to search for damage while on orbit and evaluate any areas of interest prior to reentry.

These modifications paved the way for getting the fleet back in space to continue the all-important task of building the International Space Station," she added.

Stephanie Stilson, Discovery flow director Discovery lifted off on STS-114 on July 26, 2005, on a mission highlighted by an orbital backflip, new equipment and procedures, and the first in-space orbiter repair. But a chunk of foam came off the tank during liftoff, touching off several additional months of redesign work.

Image right: NASA Flow Director for Space Shuttle Discovery, Stephanie Stilson. Photo credit NASA/KSC + View Larger Image

On July 4, 2006, Discovery again blazed a trail toward orbit on STS-121. The tank performed well and regular shuttle flights and station assembly resumed.

Meanwhile, the Launch Services Program sent an impressive array of spacecraft on a variety of Earth-observing, scientific and planetary missions. These included MESSENGER, Deep Impact, New Horizons, STEREO and many others.

Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center