Friday, February 25, 2011
At 4:53 p.m. (EDT), Space Shuttle Discovery took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on its final mission, STS-133. Its mission is to deliver and install onto the International Space Station (ISS), the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 and provide critical spare components for the station. Six astronauts, Steve Lindsey, Eric Boe, Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt, and Steve Bowen, are participating in the mission. The shuttle is also carrying Robonaut2, the first dexterous humanoid robot to be in space. Although its first priority will be to test its operation in microgravity, upgrades could eventually allow it to fulfill its ultimate purpose of becoming an astronaut helper on boring or dangerous tasks.
The launch of Discovery, which was supposed to occur at 4:50 p.m., was delayed for three minutes due to a technical problem in the shuttle’s command system and a chipped heat shield tile near the crew hatch which needed to be patched. The launch was also repeatedly postponed since November 1 due to various technical problems with the shuttle’s systems and a hydrogen leak in the fuel tank along with cracks and bad weather. A small piece of foam broke off during the launch but NASA has reported that it is unlikely to cause problems.
Discovery and the crew of STS-133 are scheduled to spend about two weeks in space and aboard the ISS, logging 4.5 million additional miles of flight.
The launch comes just hours after an unmanned automated European cargo spacecraft, ATV-2, docked with the orbiting outpost to deliver supplies and equipment to the crew.
STS-133 is scheduled to be the final mission of Discovery, with its first being STS-41-D in 1984. Discovery flew 39 flights in its operational history, including the current mission, delivering several payloads to space including the Hubble Space Telescope and visiting two different space stations: Mir and the ISS. STS-133 is the 133rd shuttle mission and the 35th mission to the ISS. Discovery is the oldest surviving shuttle, and has flown more missions than any other shuttle. It was also the first shuttle to fly after the Challenger disaster and was the first shuttle to fly after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Later, Discovery became the first shuttle to fly a Russian cosmonaut.
After the current mission, there will be at most two remaining shuttle flights. Endeavor has one more mission remaining, and if an emergency rescue is needed or more funding is secured, Atlantis will also fly once more before the entire fleet is retired.
“The shuttle has provided an amazing capacity for this country to gather data. I think we’re still sorting through a lot of it, trying to figure out what all we’ve learned from it. This chapter in our space history known as the space shuttle has been incredible,” said Bryan Lunney, lead space shuttle flight director for the mission.