NASA hopes to launch space shuttle Discovery on Feb. 27, and people in the Tampa Bay region may be able to see its fiery glow on the eastern horizon. But such sightings are numbered. NASA plans to stop flying shuttles by the end of next year, ending nearly three decades as the centerpiece of the American space program. "The impacts on Florida, both tangible and intangible, are just really remarkable," said Pat Duggins, a radio reporter at an Orlando NPR affiliate and author of Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. Although some are pushing to keep shuttles flying for a few extra years, only nine more missions officially remain on the books. After that, Florida is likely to lose thousands of space-related jobs, not to mention an icon that has become part of the state's image.
All but one of the remaining missions will focus on completing the international space station. The May mission is for repair work on the Hubble Space Telescope. The tentative schedule:
FEb. 27: Astronauts plan to install a truss segment, plus solar panels and batteries on the space station.
May: During five spacewalks, astronauts will replace a sophisticated camera and make delicate repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope.
May: Astronauts will finish installing a Japanese-built laboratory called Kibo.
August: Carry science experiments and cargo to the space station.
November: Carry gyroscopes, pumps, tanks and other equipment to the space station.
December: Deliver a connecting chamber to expand the space station's internal living space, as well as a six-window cupola that provides a 360-degree view of the station.
February 2010: Bring up science equipment for the space station's laboratories.
April 2010: Bring up maintenance hardware for the space station, including hardware for a Russian-built research station.
May 2010: Bring up more spare parts for the space station, including gas tanks and antennas.
NASA is working to build a smaller spacecraft called Orion to send astronauts to the moon and Mars. It would launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, but the capsule-shaped craft probably would make parachute landings in the western United States.
Orion would not fly until about five years after the space shuttle retires. Some members of Congress say the space shuttle should continue to fly beyond 2010, so the United States does not lose its capacity to send astronauts into space in the time between the last shuttle flight and Orion's first launch.
International Space Station: An orbiting laboratory some 200 miles above earth, the station is a cooperative effort among about 15 nations that has been continuously occupied by humans for more than eight years. The space shuttle is the only spacecraft big enough to carry up the larger components to the station.
Hubble Space Telescope: The telescope has captured images of stars some 13-billion light years away, and helped scientists rethink basic concepts of the universe. The $1.5-billion telescope launched into orbit in 1990. Astronauts hope to repair and upgrade the Hubble one final time on a mission scheduled for May.