How It Works

Final flight for Discovery


What we think of as the ‘Space Shuttle’, NASA calls the Space Shuttle transport orbital vehicle or orbiter (STS-OV, or just OV). It’s a reusable winged plane-like spacecraft. In addition to its engines and thrusters, it also has a three-level crew cabin and a payload bay. The orbiter fleet has had five different craft. The first was the Columbia, launched on 12 April 1981, followed by the Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour orbiters (the latter built to replace Challenger). Although all of the orbiters are similar, rotating maintenance means that each is somewhat unique. The Endeavour is the youngest orbiter, first launched on 7 May 1992.

The Discovery Space Shuttle is set to make its final flight tonight (24/02/11) at 4:50pm EST / 9:50pm GMT. You can watch a live feed from NASA’s website here. With it, Discovery will be taking the first robotic crew member to the ISS, Robonaut 2.

©NASA, click on the image for a larger view

Shuttle Disasters

On 28 January 1986, the Challenger was destroyed a little more than a minute into its tenth mission. A seal on one of the SRBs failed, which caused it to leak flames onto the external fuel tank. The orbiter veered and was torn apart by as much as 20 Gs of aerodynamic force, which resulted in the death of its seven-member crew.

On 1 February 2003, the Columbia was destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, killing its seven crew members. This occurred when gases entered one of the orbiter’s wings through a hole made by a piece of foam during launch and caused a structural failure.

Top Five Facts – Historical Space Shuttle Missions

STS-7: Space Shuttle Challenger

Launched on 18 June 1983, this marked the first time that an American female astronaut entered space with the inclusion of Sally K. Ride.

STS-31: Space Shuttle Discovery

Launching on 24 April 1990, the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope during STS-31.

STS-71: Space Shuttle Atlantis

On 27 June 1995, the Atlantis launched STS-71. This mission marked the first time that the Space Shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir.

STS-88: Space Shuttle Endeavour

Launched on 4 December 1998, STS-88 was the first mission to the ISS. As its payload, it carried the first US node for the ISS, Unity.

STS-95: Space Shuttle Discovery

Discovery’s 25th flight launched on 29 October 1998. It is also well-known as John Glenn’s return to space at the age of 77.

  • Vera Lee