The space shuttle discover has one final mission. It will be flown to Washington, where it will be transported to the main hangar of the Smithsonian Museum. There it will stay. After millions of miles of travel, it will end up just across town from the place the concept was hatched.
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The space shuttle was always a questionable project. Originally intended as a kind of 'space truck', it was supposed to ferry people and cargo into orbit and back cheaply, and to do this many times a year. While it worked, they never really worked the bugs out of it.
The space shuttle ended up costing about $2 billion per launch, and could only be flown a few times a year. At that price, conventional rockets with a capsule for astronauts would have been far cheaper. Still, the space shuttle was the most complex vehicle ever made, and the original estimates for its performance were more based on politics than engineering.
The Smithsonian will be a good place for Discovery. Whatever its faults might have been, it is a monument to the incredible engineering prowess of our nation. To date, no other country has ever built a flying machine of such complexity. It is also a symbol of a time when our country knew no boundaries. As a museum piece, it will remind countless visitors of what is possible. With a little luck, it will inspire a child to one day dream up an even more fantastic idea.
The space shuttle will eventually get replaced by something better. Already, NASA is developing a 21st century capsule to fit on top of a conventional rocket. Private space companies are developing rockets and planes capable of bringing people into orbit. The era of manned spaceflight is not dead yet.