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STS-133 Launches on Historic Final Mission for Shuttle Discovery

Discovery launches for one final mission. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

Overcoming a down-to the-last second problem, space shuttle Discovery made history today, launching on its final mission to orbit. The most-traveled orbiter is carrying a crew of six astronauts and one human-like Robonaut, along with a new permanent storeroom and supplies for the International Space Station. After waiting nearly four months following the detection of potentially dangerous cracks in Discovery’s external tank and a leak in the Orbiter Maneuvering System pod, a problem with a computer for the Air Force Range Safety Officer nearly thwarted the long-anticipated launch. The crew of STS-133 finally launched on their historic mission, with reinforced ribs, or stringers, in the tank’s “intertank” section and a leak-free OMS, and — two seconds before the launch window would have closed — a working computer in the Range. “That was about as last second as you can get,” said spokesman Allard Beutel from Kennedy Space Center.

Discovery set off on her final journey from a picture-perfect warm February day at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, thrilling enormous crowds of onlookers, a huge international press corp and dedicated Tweet-up attendees.

But the four month delay was not without consequences, as original STS-133 crew member Tim Kopra was injured in a bike accident, and Steve Bowen was chosen to replace him. The crew – which includes Commander Steve Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt, and spacewalkers Alvin Drew and Bowen — met at the base of the shuttle before climbing on board in a touching moment, giving each other a group hug before setting off on their mission.

In the payload bay is the Permanent Logistics Module – a glorified closet, with the first human-like robot, affectionately named R2, who will become a permanent crewmember on board the ISS.

STS-133 launch. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

Discovery has been flying since Aug. 30, 1984. It’s first mission was 41-D, where astronauts deployed three communications satellites. Discovery has completed 30 successful missions, more than any other orbiter in NASA’s Shuttle fleet. The orbiter has undergone 99 different upgrades and 88 special safety tests – just since 2002. Discovery was named after several ships of exploration in human history.

Paving the way for the launch was today’s successful docking at the ISS of the ATV-2 Johannes Kepler, a European re-supply ship for the ISS. The Automated Transfer Vehicle 2 is the size of a double-decker bus, and carries 7 tons of supplies for the station’s six-person crew.

Here’s our huge gallery of launch images and here’s a video of the launch from NASA TV:

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • RALF99 February 24, 2011, 3:16 PM

    Did anyone else notice that isomething hit Discovery during the launch? It was during the view from the camera positioned on the external fuel tank about 2 minutes after the solid booster rockets separated. Something flies up and hits the tiles on the shuttle’s underside. I could not see any damage, but the image was pretty poor at that point. I saw it during the original coverage and then again on the replay.

    • Aqua February 24, 2011, 4:15 PM

      Yes.. there were a couple foam decoupling episodes. At the just finished NASA launch day news conference (Nancy was there!) they mentioned that those events happened after maximum aerodynamic expose… and probably were not a prob. Inspection tomorrow will write the bottom line….

      • Nancy Atkinson February 24, 2011, 4:52 PM

        Yes, at the press conference the launch managers said several relatively large pieces of foam insulation –like 8 X 10 inch pieces — came off the external tank, including some that likely hit the orbiter’s heat shield. But those observed impacts occurred well after the shuttle was out of the dense part of the atmosphere where debris impacts are more dangerous. They will surely look at the underside of Discovery in great detail to make sure everything is OK.

  • wjwbudro February 24, 2011, 3:59 PM

    If it’s what we’ve seen before, it was ice.

  • Aqua February 24, 2011, 4:24 PM

    Rats.. due to orbital processing, a series of evening ISS viewing ops just passed for this location on the left coast of USA. I’d really like to see the shuttle and space station together again!

  • Don Alexander February 24, 2011, 6:23 PM

    Aqua, I daresay you mean orbital precession… :P

    Yeah, so that piece break off too, looked pretty scary!

  • redstone February 24, 2011, 6:56 PM

    Anyone hear Bolden today on CNN saying the Space Shuttle should have been retired a long time ago and hoped commerical can bail out NASA. What a tool and an embarasment for NASA.

  • stlastla February 25, 2011, 1:12 PM

    Nasa says that potential damage will be known tomorrow, at least I think that is what they find out in the standard scan of the shuttle’s thermal protection system. I dont think that they will find anything serious. We would have known by now

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/main/index.html

  • renoor February 25, 2011, 7:24 AM

    is the shuttle preceding, or following ISS? i’m looking forward to -3.0 mag. pass 3 hours from now :)

    • Aqua February 25, 2011, 11:19 AM

      I am always surprised to see how much the main tank flexes just prior to maximum aerodynamic stress. I wonder what that movement feels like in the shuttle, if at all?

    • Aqua February 25, 2011, 11:24 AM

      The shuttle comes from behind and below the ISS
      This page has real time positions for both the Shuttle and ISS

      http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/realdata/tracking/index.html

  • Spacemad February 25, 2011, 11:41 AM

    I was able to see the lift off live on NASA TV on my computer last night. It was good to see a lift off ‘ even if it was Discovery´s last count down!

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