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STS-133: Final Flight of Discovery
Space shuttle Discovery

Image above: Space shuttle Discovery awaits its payload as the STS-133 payload canister is lifted into the rotating service structure on Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image credit: NASA/Troy Cryder

Workhorse, ambassador, scientist and equal opportunity emissary. Space shuttle Discovery has fulfilled all those roles over the course of its 352 days in space, thus far.

It’s been the first shuttle to venture into new territory several times, and it’s about to do so again: Following the STS-133 mission, Discovery will be the first of the shuttle fleet to retire.

“We’re wrapping up the Space Shuttle Program,” said STS-133 Commander Steve Lindsey. “Besides the excitement of completing the International Space Station and all the things we do, I hope people get a sense of the history of what the shuttle is and what we’ve done and what’s ending. Because they’ll probably never see anything like it flying again.”

After STS-133, space shuttle Endeavour has one more flight on the manifest. Atlantis has the possibility of another flight, and it has to be ready for one regardless, as it would be the rescue vehicle if Endeavour were to need it. So Discovery will be the first vehicle to roll to what will definitely be a final wheel stop.

It’s certainly earned its retirement. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact. After 38 missions to date, and more than 5,600 trips around the Earth, Discovery has carried satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and sent the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the Sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, and it delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.

Space shuttle Discovery's payload bay

Image above: Space shuttle Discovery's payload bay contains the Permanent Multipurpose Module packed with supplies and critical spare parts, as well as Robonaut 2. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

By the end of STS-133, 180 people will also have flown aboard Discovery, including the first female shuttle pilot and the first female shuttle commander (who happen to be the same person – Eileen Collins), the first African American spacewalker (Bernard Harris) and the first sitting member of congress to fly in space (Jake Garn).

This time around, Discovery will carry a crew of six to and from the space station – Lindsey, Pilot Eric Boe, and Mission Specialists Alvin Drew, Tim Kopra, Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott – as well as what used to be the Leonardo Multipurpose Module on a one-way trip. It’s now called the Permanent Multipurpose Module, and rather than returning, it will stay attached to the station’s Unity node to provide extra storage for the space station. And though the concept of a closet in space may not sound too exciting, it’s becoming more important all the time.

“It’s 10 years that we’ve had a continuous presence on board the space station,” Royce Renfrew, lead space station flight director for the mission, said. ”If you think about it, if you’ve lived in your house 10 years, you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff, and it doesn’t look like the pristine, empty house that you moved into. We’ve gotten into a configuration now on the space station where we have a lot of stuff and we don’t have a lot of space to put it in.”

Still, if that doesn’t grab your attention, perhaps what it carries inside will: In addition to a host of new science experiments and hardware, there’s Robonaut 2, the first dexterous humanoid robot in space. Although its first priority will be to test its operation in microgravity, upgrades could eventually allow it to fulfill its ultimate purpose of becoming an astronaut helper on boring or dangerous tasks.

JSC2010-E-090931 -- Robonaut 2

Image above: Robonaut 2 will be journeying to the space station aboard space shuttle Discovery during the STS-133 mission. Photo credit: NASA

“I think it will be interesting to get it hooked up and start playing with it, seeing what it can do,” Lindsey said. “What I know from my years of flight tests and being around airplanes and watching them evolved is, I’m pretty sure that everybody’s preconceived notions of what we’re going to use this for are wrong. But by putting it on station, working with it, we’ll learn what the best use of it is. And that’s the whole purpose.”

When that proves to be the case, it will be one more technology advancement for which we can, in part, thank space shuttle Discovery and its fleet mates. Bryan Lunney, lead space shuttle flight director for the mission, said he doubts we even know yet just how many such advancements and discoveries they could take some credit for.

"The shuttle has provided an amazing capacity for this country to gather data,” Lunney said. “I think we’re still sorting through a lot of it, trying to figure out what all we’ve learned from it. This chapter in our space history known as the space shuttle has been incredible."