Thursday, February 24, 2011

Discovery blasts off on final flight.

Space shuttle Discovery blasted off into a blue Florida sky on Thursday, leaving behind launchpad 39A for the final time.

The shuttle, the first of NASA's three orbiters slated to fly into retirement, was cheered off by giant crowds filling Space Coast beaches and parks to witness the historic 4:53 p.m. launch.

Discovery is headed for a Saturday docking with the International Space Station where it will deliver the last U.S. module, spare parts and a robot called Robonaut 2 - and a return to Earth early next month that will herald the beginning of the end of the nation's 30-year shuttle program.

Steve Lindsey, a four-time flyer, is leading the veteran six-person crew, which includes a late substitution: mission specialist Steve Bowen who replaced Tim Kopra, injured January in a bicycle accident. They are joined by pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Mike Barratt, Alvin Drew and Nicole Stott.

Confirming that Discovery had successfully reached orbit, Charlie Hobaugh, an astronaut in Houston, told the crew: "Welcoming you and your veteran crew back to space."

"Good to be here," replied Lindsey.

Discovery's Thursday launch came after a nearly four-month delay as NASA teams across the country worked to resolve a tank problem. After a Nov. 5 launch scrub, engineers discovered cracks in the tips of support beams called "stringers" on the tank's mid-section.

The cracks threatened to endanger the crew by dislodging chunks of foam that could hit orbiter heat shields or by destabilizing the tank.

Analysis determined the beams were made from a more brittle batch of metal. Technicians reinforced roughly 100 stringers with small aluminum strips to add stiffness.

A problem with a computer used by the Eastern Range, responsible for providing traffic and safety services for all launches from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, threatened to derail Thursday's launch with just minutes to go. But it was resolved, and the launch went ahead.

The shuttle's primary payload is an Italian-built cargo container nicknamed Leonardo that will be left on the station to serve as a much-needed storage closet.

To survive at least a decade in orbit, the module was outfitted with a sort of bullet-proof vest, a Kevlar lining to help it survive strikes by micrometeoroids and space debris.

Packed inside Leonardo along with supplies and science racks is the mission's "seventh" crew member, a human-like robot developed by NASA and General Motors. Robonaut 2, or R2, is a 300-pound torso with two arms and five-fingered hands, and a gold-visored helmet.

Discovery's 39th and final voyage caps a career highlighted by deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, John Glenn's flight at age 77 and return-to-flight missions after two shuttle disasters.

If Discovery returns on schedule, it would be expected to touch down at Kennedy Space Center for the last time at 12:44 p.m. March 7.



Mark Lopa said...

Did I hear correctly that there was two seconds remaining in the launch window, or was that referring to something else?

Gaetano Marano said...

the Shuttle is an old and risky machine but the (weak) "commercial space" costs will be up to FIVE TIMES HIGHER than Shuttle, as explained in this comparison article:
the two COTS/CRS contractors must carry a TOTAL of only 40-50 tons of cargo to the ISS in 4-6 years and ZERO ASTRONAUTS
at the SAME PRICE the Shuttle can carry up to 200 tons of cargo AND up to 70 astronauts in up to TEN flights in about two years (6+4) OR (with a resized program) up to 140 tons of cargo AND up to 42 astronauts with SIX flights in three years!!!