Space shuttle Discovery, NASA's oldest-flying orbiter and the most flown spacecraft in history, launched on its 39th and final space flight Thursday from the Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
"The final liftoff of Discovery!" exclaimed NASA commentator Mike Curie as the shuttle lept off the pad. "A tribute to the dedication, hard work and pride of America's space shuttle team."
Discovery flies past its flag on its final trip to space. Credit: collectSPACE
Discovery lifted off for the International Space Station (ISS) at 4:53 p.m. EST (2153 GMT), three minutes later than originally scheduled. The brief delay was the result of a problem with an Air Force range safety system computer, which was resolved with just two seconds remaining to make the end of the launch window.
Cleared for flight, Discovery's commander readied those waiting for what was to come next.
"For those watching, get ready to witness the majesty and the power of the shuttle Discovery as she lifts off one more time," Steve Lindsey said from the crew cabin minutes before launch.
Discovery is heading for the station carrying a modified "storage closet," spare equipment pallet, and the first humanoid robot to be flown in space.
Credit: NASA TV
Led by Lindsey, Discovery's STS-133 crew includes pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott, Alvin Drew and Stephen Bowen.
Bowen is the first U.S. astronaut to fly on consecutive missions. Having flown onboard Atlantis' STS-132 mission last May, Bowen was added to Discovery's STS-133 crew after astronaut Timothy Kopra was injured in a bike accident less than six weeks before launch.
Discovery's crew will add to the ISS the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), the modified multi-purpose logistics module (MPLM) Leonardo. The PMM will provide additional storage space for the station crew, and experiments may be conducted inside it, such as fluid physics, materials science, biology and biotechnology.
Packed inside the PMM to be transferred to the station is Robonaut 2, or R2, the first human-like robot in space. Controlled either from the ground or by its fellow ISS crew members, R2 is designed to assist the station's residents inside, and eventually outside, the orbiting laboratory.
Discovery is also carrying spare components — including a radiator, the largest spare component for the station ever launched on the shuttle — and the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier 4 (ELC4) to the station. ExPRESS, which stands for Expedite the Processing of Experiments to the Space Station, is an external platform that holds large equipment that can only be transported using the shuttle.
STS-133 crew members Drew and Bowen will perform two spacewalks to install new components and do maintenance outside the station.
Credit: collectSPACE/Robert Z. Pearlman
Planned as an 11-day mission, STS-133 may gain one more day on-orbit should managers approve a plan to undock a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and fly it away from the station to photograph the complex together with Discovery and the other international vehicles attached to the ISS.
The STS-133 mission was delayed several months after a hydrogen gas leak scrubbed its first launch attempt on Nov. 5. Shuttle technicians then discovered cracks in Discovery's external tank, which led to tests and an unprecedented but fairly-straightforward repair plan.
Discovery, which flew its maiden voyage on Aug. 30, 1984, is the first of NASA's three remaining orbiters to reach its final flight. Following a safe return from space, Discovery will be prepared for transfer to a museum. It is expected, but not yet confirmed by NASA, that Discovery will be given to the Smithsonian for display at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
Launch director Mike Leinbach took a few moments both before and after Discovery's final liftoff to share what gave his team as a memento of the launch and the surprise souvenir he received in return.
"After launch, we'll be giving out a commemorative picture of Discovery that has her tribute display on it and some nice words," said Leinbach, referring to a large montage dedicated to Discovery's legacy that hangs above the Launch Control Center's consoles.
Discovery's tribute, which hangs in the Launch Control Center. Credit: NASA
"We are trying to give something to the troops that they can take with them as they move on to the next phase of their careers, wherever that may be, to remember the good work they did and to be able to display something in their home or their next office and be proud of what we did for America's space program," he added.
In turn, Discovery's orbiter closeout crew gifted Leinbach with the banner displaying the shuttle's name that adorned Discovery's crew hatch.
Credit: NASA TV
"The closeout crew gave me a surprise," Leinbach said as he proudly unfolded and displayed the banner at the post-launch press conference. "For Discovery's last launch they gave me... this is from the hatch cover. It is signed by the astronaut crew and by the closeout crew."
"That was a gift from them to me. It is going to take a very special place in my home," he shared.
Discovery's crew hatch with the banner still in place. Credit: NASA
Michael Leinbach poses with Discovery's banner. Credit: collectSPACE
Discovery's six astronauts, having made it into orbit, spent the remainder of their first flight day converting their rocket into a spacecraft.
They opened Discovery's two 60-foot long payload bay doors, deployed a high bandwidth Ku-band antenna enabling them to send TV from orbit and powered up the shuttle's Canadarm robotic arm.
They also fired Discovery's maneuvering engines to adjust their approach to the International Space Station.
Finally, after a long day that began with their launch, the astronauts were ready to turn in for their first sleep period at about 9:50 p.m. CST.
"A great first day in space," radioed spacecraft communicator or capcom Megan McArthur from Mission Control in Houston. "We're looking forward to working with you for the rest of the mission."
"And, go Bugs!" she added.
Five of Discovery's crew belong to the same astronaut class, nicknamed "The Bugs." Like McArthur, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Steve Bowen, Mike Barratt, Alvin Drew and Nicole Stott were all selected to join the NASA astronaut corps in August 2000.
STS-133 commander Steven Lindsey was chosen with the class of 1994, "The Flying Escargot."
"Great words, even though I am not a Bug," replied Lindsey from space.
"Honorary!" injected Stott.
"Yeah, whatever," continued Lindsey over the laughter in the background. "Anyway, great day, great working with you."
"We will definitely count you as an honorary Bug," said McArthur. "Again, great job and have a good night."