STS 129 shuttle launch sunset view

The end is beginning for NASA’s three aging space shuttles, with just five more missions on tap this year before the orbiter fleet retires in the fall.

That is, unless NASA needs a few more months to fly those remaining missions or President Barack Obama chooses to extend the shuttle program to fill a looming gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability.

Though the ultimate path forward for NASA has not yet been decided, the space agency is at a turning point after nearly 29 years of shuttle flight.

“Obviously it’s the end of an era,” said Roger Launius, space history curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “There’s a certain amount of nostalgia and a sense of loss, no question.”

The very last space shuttle flight, the STS-133 mission of the shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station, is scheduled for September 2010. The launch will be the 134th shuttle voyage since the fleet’s debut in 1981.

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