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.
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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.
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: