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Flight at the End of the 20th Century

NASA Missions, 1994-2007
NASA launched Space Shuttle Discovery in 1984, and the vehicle is now the oldest of the three active shuttles.
NASA launched Space Shuttle Discovery in 1984, and the vehicle is now the oldest of the three active shuttles.

Balloonists also continued pushing the envelope, with Steve Fossett setting a balloon distance record of 14,235 miles in 1998, only to see the Breitling Orbiter III finally achieve, in 1999, the first ever flight around the world in a balloon.

There was similar variety in space records. The Space Shuttle Discovery rendezvoused with the troubled Mir Space Station. In command was Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot an American spacecraft. On a subsequent flight, the Space Shuttle Atlantis would actually dock with Mir. The Russian cosmonaut, Dr. Valeri Polyakov, returned to Earth after making the longest space flight ever of more than 437 days. The 51-year-old American astronaut, Shannon Lucid, made her second trip into space and spent 181 days aboard Mir - surely enough for anyone, given the somewhat decrepit state into which the venerable space station had fallen. Mir's situation did not improve a few months later when an unpiloted Progress supply craft collided with it, jeopardizing the lives of all aboard.


Much of the Space Shuttle work was directed toward the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). At one point, Mir, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the ISS were linked, forming the greatest artificial mass ever put into orbit. Within two years, the ISS would be the scene of much activity including spectacular EVAs of up to five hours duration. The ISS would also serve as the destination for the first-ever space tourists. In April 2001, Dennis Tito paid $20 million to join a Russian flight to the ISS. Mark Shuttleworth followed in June 2002, also paying $20 million for the privilege.

NASA continued its deep-space missions, sending the Cassini-Huygens space probe to explore Saturn and its moons. In 2005, Huygens landed on the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and began transmitting scientific information. The next year, Cassini detected geysers of liquid, possibly water, on one of Saturn's other moons.

Mars was also a planet of great interest during this period, as NASA sent a variety of probes to the red planet to take photographs and gather data. NASA explored other planets in our solar system, as well, by sending its New Horizons spacecraft toward Pluto in 2006, and in 2007, its MESSENGER spacecraft to Mercury via Venus.

Heavenly bodies other than planets were also the subjects of scrutiny. One of the greatest, showiest space events in history occurred when the NEAR orbiter was directed to land on the asteroid Eros and did so successfully. Another feat was the capture of photos of the Comet Borrelly nucleus by the Deep Space I satellite. No less dramatic, in a 2005 mission reminiscent of a science-fiction movie, NASA sent Deep Impact to comet Tempel 1, where it launched a projectile into the comet just to see what would happen. And of course, the sense of going ever deeper into space, and ever backward in time, was heightened by the success of the Hubble Telescope. After receiving a complete overhaul in space, it began recording its incredible "Hubble Ultra Deep Field" images.