With a brilliant flash of light and a thundering roar, the Space shuttle Discovery was launched early Monday to deliver spare parts and science experiments to the international space station (see the picture above.) Discovery was launched at 6:21 a.m. ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“Enjoy the ride,” shuttle test director Laurie Sally radioed the crew minutes before liftoff.
Discovery 7’s mission will last nearly two weeks and coincide with the 29th anniversary of the first shuttle flight on April 12. Three days later, President Barack Obama will visit the Cape Canaveral area to outline his post-shuttle plans for NASA. The US president already has cancelled NASA’s follow-up moon program.
The three women on board Discovery will join a fourth already at the space station, setting a record for the most women in space at the same time. The women, mission specialists Stephanie Wilson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger and Naoko Yamazaki, comprise part of the Discovery’s crew, while NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson is already at the space station.
The 13-day mission includes three planned spacewalks, replacing an ammonia tank assembly and retrieving a Japanese experiment from the station’s exterior. Discovery is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Wednesday, and return to Earth on April 18 at 8:35 a.m. ET. After this mission, there are only three shuttle missions remaining before the space shuttle fleet is retired.
In a rare treat, the space station passed over the launch site 15 minutes before Discovery blasted off and was easily visible, resembling a big, brilliant star (see the picture above) in the clear morning sky with the moon as a dramatic backdrop. By launch time, the outpost had traveled almost all the way across the Atlantic.
“It’s time for you to rise to orbit. Good luck and God speed,” launch director Pete Nickolenko told the astronauts before liftoff. “Let’s do it!” replied commander Alan Poindexter. The ascending Discovery could be seen with the naked eye for several minutes as it shot upwards.
Discovery’s flight was the 35th and last in the shuttle program to begin in darkness. The launch was delayed more than two weeks because of unusually cold weather.
The space station is expected to be finished in September after 12 years of construction, taking place about 220 miles above Earth. The United States plans to stop flying its trio of space shuttles after three more missions to stock the outpost with spare parts and gear too big or bulky to fit on other spaceships.
The shuttles, which can carry about 50 tons to the station’s orbit, are being retired due to cost and safety concerns. NASA will then turn over cargo deliveries to two commercial firms — privately held Space Exploration Technologies of California and Orbital Sciences Corp of Virginia. Station partners Russia, Europe and Japan also have vessels that can haul cargo to the outpost. [via Telegraph (UK), DailyMail (UK) and CNN]