The U.S. space shuttle Discovery has blasted off for the last time on a mission that marks the beginning of the end of the shuttle era.
The shuttle lifted off at 4:53pm. EST (21:53 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center, riding a flame-tipped pillar of smoke across the Atlantic Ocean as it soared through partly cloudy skies toward space.
Around 40,000 guests gathered at Kennedy Space Centre to watch the launch of the historic mission, carrying six astronauts and the first humanoid robot to go into space.
The launch was delayed three minutes when a range safety computer shut down before the planned 4:50pm. EST lift-off. The problem was resolved with seconds to spare, clearing Discovery for launch.
It was the 133rd launch in the 30-year-old shuttle program, and up to two flights remain before the United States retires its three-ship fleet later this year.
Discovery is the oldest of Nasa’s three surviving space shuttles and will be the first to be decommissioned this year. It was first launched in August 1984, and has since traveled more than 142 million miles and carried 246 crewmembers into space, NASA officials said.
It made both return-to-flight missions following the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and delivered the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. The shuttle is expected eventually to be put on display by the Smithsonian Institution.
The shuttles are being retired due to high operational costs and to free up money to develop new vehicles capable of travelling beyond the space station’s orbit.
The veteran shuttle’s last crew is made up of commander Steve Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, and mission specialists Michael Barratt, Alvin Drew, Steve Bowen and Nicole Stott
“For those watching, get ready to witness the power of Discovery as she lifts off one final time,” the mission commander Steven Lindsey radioed just before the launch.
Discovery will reach the space station on Saturday, delivering a module full of supplies and experimental humanoid robot Robonaut 2, or R2 – a $100 billion project of 16 nations nearing completion after more than a decade of construction 220 miles (354 kilometres) above the Earth.
The experimental machine is currently just a head, arms, and a torso mounted on a pedestal. But the plan is to give R2 legs so it can move around the station. “I’m in space! Hello, Universe!” R2 announced in a tweet sent by a human still on Earth.
Robonaut 2 will be located in the station’s US lab for testing. Built in partnership with General Motors, the robot will be tested to see how safely it works alongside humans. NASA hopes to use the robot for routine maintenance chores inside the station.
During Discovery’s approach to the space station, crew members will test a navigation sensor called Dragon Eye for Space Exploration Technologies, a private California-based company that has NASA contracts to deliver cargo to the station after the shuttles are retired later this year.
Two astronauts will test a new type of eyeglasses called Superfocus, which can be adjusted with the flick of a finger to focus reading material, computer screens, distant objects or anything in between. The glasses weigh about the same as conventional glasses.
The mission had been on hold since November to fix problems with the shuttle’s fuel tank. Engineers repaired and reinforced thin metal support beams inside the tank, several of which had cracked when the ship was fuelled for a launch attempt on Nov. 5 and during a follow-up tanking test in December.
Similar modifications are planned for the fuel tanks of the two other shuttles in the fleet. Shuttle Endeavour is set to launch April 19 with the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector.
Nasa also wants to fly the shuttle Atlantis this summer with a year’s worth of supplies to tide over the space station until commercial resupply vehicles are operational.
“This was Discovery’s last, great way to go out,” said launch director Mike Leinbach. “She gave us a little bit of a fit today, but it’s a great way to get Steve Lindsey and his crew on orbit. I’m very, very proud of my launch team and all the rest of the people that work so hard on Discovery and the support systems around the country.”
Nasa eventually wants to turn over station crew taxi flights, now handled by Russia at a cost of $51 million a seat, to private companies if any will offer human space flight services.
Nasa had planned to follow the shuttle program with a new moon exploration initiative, but that has been cancelled in favour of developing more flexible spacecraft that can reach asteroids, Mars and other destinations. However, all plans are on hold, pending budget allocations from Congress. [via Space, CBS (CA) and The Guardian (UK)]