Final Shuttle Flight Marks Historic Entry into Commercial Space Race

On April 19, 2012 by Jonathan Bright

Discovery flies by DC

As I write this, Twitter lights up. Hundreds of excited messages, pictures and video tagged #SpotTheShuttle are emerging from tweeters in Orlando and Washington DC, although the excitement masks a wistful sadness. This is the final flight of space shuttle Discovery from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre. Lamentably the only space she’s now destined for is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, one of Discovery’s final crew, told Reuters this week: “It’s sad to see this happening, but you look at it and you just can’t help but be impressed by it. That’s my hope now, that every time someone looks at that vehicle they are impressed.”

Discovery has been shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for longer than many can remember. Her inaugural flight was in August 1984, serving until March last year when construction of the $100 billion floating base camp had completed.

Is it a hearse, is it a plane?

It was a bittersweet image as Discovery was loaded onto a carrier Boeing 747, leaving Kennedy via the runway and not the launch pad.


The shuttle circled Florida’s Cape Canaveral. So many launches have been observed from this shoreline over the years. Visitors to Cocoa Beach overflowed as admiring cheers erupted.

The aerial cavalcade then travelled north for a testimonial lap over the US capital, before touching down at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. From there, the shuttle was transported to her final resting place in nearby Virginia.

Discovery’s sister shuttle Atlantis will remain on show at Kennedy Space Center, while shuttle Endeavour will be displayed at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

On to the next one

Just as Twitter was the first to wave goodbye to NASA’s past, so too will it be the first to catch a glimpse of its future later this month. NASA and commercial launch vehicle developer Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) have invited a select number of space aficionados particularly active in social media to a ‘NASA Social’ at Kennedy.

The two-day event concludes on April 30 with the first of three unmanned test flights of SpaceX’s Falcon9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. This will be the first time a private developer has sent a commercial cargo vessel to the space station.

The launch was given the go-ahead this week after passing review at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. The company has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for at least 12 flights, carrying cargo to and from the ISS.

CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk (incidentally also the founder of PayPal) was cautiously optimistic of a successful dock with the ISS, speaking to reporters afterwards.

He said: “I think we’ve got a pretty good shot, but it is worth emphasising that there’s a lot that can go wrong in a mission like this.”

Three flights over the course of this year will assess capabilities for launch, navigation and communication, radio and docking with the ISS, and subsequent return to Earth.

The key is its re-entry capabilities, something their Russians counterparts have not yet managed to alleviate, SpaceX Communications Director Kirstin Brost Grantham tells us.

She says: “With the retirement of the space shuttle program, only SpaceX will be capable of returning cargo from the International Space Station. That’s incredibly valuable.

“We are working to prepare the vehicles to carry astronauts. In addition to carrying the spacecraft, the rocket also has contracts to carry commercial satellites into orbit.”

Ms Grantham says the company expects to start manned flights in a few years, and eventually intends to transport private passengers.

She says: “I think there’s a bright future for giving more and more people access to space.”

Going fishing: Video of a test launch of Falcon9 rcocket and SpaceX’s animation of the final stages of the Dragon rendezvous with the ISS, as crew manually reels in the craft with a robotic arm.

Commercial space: SpaceX video of potential future space program.

Visitors to space

Like the end of the shuttle era there is perhaps an inherent sadness as NASA sets down its pioneer laurels and makes way for commercialised space services.

Leader of the space tourism race Virgin Galactic is still test-flying next-generation carrier SpaceShipTwo. The company reckons it will start propelling its growing guest list of private passengers – including, somewhat bizarrely, Angelina Jolie and 500th signer Ashton Kutcher – to the final frontier as early as next year. Unfortunately a seat on Virgin Galactic will set you back $200,000.

The astronomical bill remains the elephant in the room at NASA as people say goodbye to the shuttle, some resigning themselves to the fact they are saying goodbye to discovery of a more literal sense. Space travel isn’t ultimately profit-making and there’s little commercial impetus for sending craft beyond the auspices of the ISS. Meanwhile major players China and Russia are already questioning whether their space program funding is better spent back on Earth.

With the conclusion of the shuttle program and hopeful first successes in delivering commercial cargo to the ISS, certainly these are historic albeit uncertain times for the space age.

It is highly likely a holiday to Orlando will soon become your stopover to the cosmos. Though with the levels of funding and testing still required, we probably don’t need to start taking bookings just yet.