U.S. shuttle Discovery lifts off for final voyage

Published: 27/02/2011 05:00



U.S. space shuttle Discovery lifted
off on Thursday afternoon from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to deliver a
storage room to the International Space Station (ISS), on its own final
scheduled flight.

Space shuttle Discovery crew members
Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt, Alvin Drew, Steve Bowen, Eric Boe and Steve
Lindsey (L to R) prepare to board the astronaut van for the launch pad at the
Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the United States, Feb. 24,
2011. Space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to begin an 11-day mission to the
International Space Station (ISS) with a launch at 4:50 p.m. EST (2050 GMT) on
Feb. 24. (Xinhua/Qi Heng)

According to NASA TV, the shuttle blasted
off at about 4:53 p.m. EST (2153 GMT) on a tower of flame.

“Good to be here,” Discovery Commander
Steve Lindsey radioed soon after the three main engines shut off and the
external fuel tank was jettisoned.

After eight and a half minutes, Discovery
has reached orbit and is on its way to the station, according to NASA.

Discovery will deliver to the station the
Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), a spare closet module that will provide
additional storage for the station crew. And experiments may be conducted inside
it, such as those of fluid physics, materials science, biology and

Discovery also will carry critical spare
components and the Express Logistics Carrier 4 to the station. Express is an
external platform that holds large equipment that can only be transported using
the unique capability of the shuttle.

The mission will feature two spacewalks to
do maintenance work and install new components. Robonaut 2, or R2, has been the
first human-like robot in space after flying on Discovery inside the PMM. It
will also become a permanent resident of the station.

The 330-pound R2 consists of a head and a
torso with two arms and two hands. Once unpacked — likely several months after
it arrives at the station — it will initially be operated inside the Destiny
laboratory for operational testing, but over time both its territory and its
applications could expand.

Aboard the station, its primary job for
now is teaching engineers how dexterous robots behave in space. However, the
hope is that through upgrades and advancements, it could one day venture outside
the station to help spacewalkers make repairs or additions to the station or
perform scientific work.

“This project exemplifies the promise that
a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as
replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting
roles,” John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office at
the NASA Headquarters, said earlier. “The combined potential of humans and
robots is a perfect example of the sum equaling more than the parts. It will
allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine

Discovery was supposed to lift off on Nov.
1, but gas leaks, electrical problem with a backup controller and bad weather
forced NASA to postpone its launch.

This is the 39th flight for Discovery, the
first of the three surviving space shuttles to be retired this year. It has
logged 143 million miles (230 million kilometers) since its first flight in

There were initially five space shuttles
in the fleet — Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986 and Columbia
disintegrated on its way back to Earth in 2003. Endeavour is set for its final
takeoff on April 19 and a last mission for Atlantis is scheduled for June 28,
though funding for Atlantis remains in question.

The sixth shuttle, Enterprise, did test
flights in the atmosphere but was never flown into space. It is already on
display at a museum outside Washington.

The 30-year-old shuttle program is ending
due to high operating costs. The Obama administration wants to spur private
companies to get into the space taxi business, freeing NASA to focus on deep
space exploration and new technology development.

When the U.S. space shuttle program
officially ends later this year, the Russian space program’s Soyuz capsule will
be the only method for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS.


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