NASA Names Four Astronauts for First Boeing, SpaceX U.S. Commercial Spaceflights

NASA today (July 9) named the first four astronauts who will fly on the first U.S. commercial spaceflights in private crew transportation vehicles being built by Boeing and SpaceX – marking a major milestone towards restoring American human launches to U.S. soil as soon as mid-2017, if all goes well.

The four astronauts chosen are all veterans of flights on NASA’s Space Shuttles and to the International Space Station (ISS); Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams. They now form the core of NASA’s commercial crew astronaut corps eligible for the maiden test flights on board the Boeing CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut capsules.

Behnken, Boe and Hurley have each launched on two shuttle missions and Williams is a veteran of two long-duration flights aboard the ISS after launching on both the shuttle and Soyuz. All four served as military test pilots prior to being selected as NASA astronauts.

The experienced quartet of space flyers will work closely with Boeing and SpaceX as they begin training and prepare to launch aboard the first ever commercial ‘space taxi’ ferry flight missions to the ISS and back – that will also end our sole source reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for crewed missions to low-Earth orbit and further serve to open up space exploration and transportation services to the private sector.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

“I am pleased to announce four American space pioneers have been selected to be the first astronauts to train to fly to space on commercial crew vehicles, all part of our ambitious plan to return space launches to U.S. soil, create good-paying American jobs and advance our goal of sending humans farther into the solar system than ever before,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.

“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail — a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The selection of astronauts for rides with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) comes almost exactly four years to the day since the last American manned space launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission to the space station on July 8, 2011 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hurley was a member of the STS-135 crew and served as shuttle pilot under NASA’s last shuttle commander, Chris Ferguson, who is now Director of Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew program. Read my earlier exclusive interviews with Ferguson about the CST-100 – here and here.

Since the retirement of the shuttle orbiters, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back, at a current cost of over $70 million per seat.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden elaborated. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.

Behnken, Boe, Hurley and Williams are all eager to work with the Boeing and SpaceX teams to “understand their designs and operations as they finalize their Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and operational strategies in support of their crewed flight tests and certification activities as part of their contracts with NASA.”

Until June 2015, Williams held the record for longest time in space by a woman, accumulating 322 days in orbit. Behnken is currently the chief of the astronaut core and conducted six space walks at the station. Boe has spent over 28 days in space and flew on the final mission of Space Shuttle Discovery in Feb. 2011 on STS-133.

The first commercial crew flights under the CCtCAP contract could take place in 2017 with at least one member of the two person crews being a NASA astronaut – who will be “on board to verify the fully-integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all systems perform as expected, and land safely,” according to a NASA statement.

The second crew member could be a company test pilot as the details remain to be worked out.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

The actual launch date depends on the NASA budget allocation for the Commercial Crew Program approved by the US Congress.

Congress has never approved NASA’s full funding request for the CCP program and has again cut the program significantly in initial votes this year. So the outlook for a 2017 launch is very uncertain.

Were it not for the drastic CCP cuts we would be launching astronauts this year on the space taxis.

“Every dollar we invest in commercial crew is a dollar we invest in ourselves, rather than in the Russian economy,” Bolden emphasizes about the multifaceted benefits of the commercial crew initiative.

Under the CCtCAP contract, NASA recently ordered the agency’s first commercial crew mission from Boeing – as outlined in my story here. SpaceX will receive a similar CCtCAP mission order later this year.

At a later date, NASA will decide whether Boeing or SpaceX will launch the actual first commercial crew test flight mission to low Earth orbit.

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“This is a new and exciting era in the history of U.S. human spaceflight,” said Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

“These four individuals, like so many at NASA and the Flight Operations Directorate, have dedicated their careers to becoming experts in the field of aeronautics and furthering human space exploration. The selection of these experienced astronauts who are eligible to fly aboard the test flights for the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to the ISS and low-Earth orbit ensures that the crews will be well-prepared and thoroughly trained for their missions.”

Both the CST-100 and Crew Dragon will typically carry a crew of four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members, along with some 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. Each will also be capable of carrying up to seven crew members depending on how the capsule is configured.

The spacecraft will be capable to remaining docked at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

The NASA CCtCAP contracts call for a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions from each provider.

The station crew will also be enlarged to seven people that will enable a doubling of research time.
The CST-100 will be carried to low Earth orbit atop a man-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It enjoys a 100% success rate.

Boeing will first conduct a pair of unmanned and manned orbital CST-100 test flights earlier in 2017 in April and July, prior to the operational commercial crew rotation mission to confirm that their capsule is ready and able and met all certification milestone requirements set by NASA.

The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It enjoyed a 100% success rate until last weeks launch on its 19th flight which ended with an explosion two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral on June 28, 2015.

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX conducted a successful Pad Abort Test of the Crew Dragon on May 6, as I reported here. The goal was to test the spacecrafts abort systems that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the case of a launch emergency such as occurred during the June 28 rocket failure in flight that was bound for the ISS with the initial cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon.

SpaceX plans an unmanned orbital test flight of Crew Dragon perhaps by the end of 2016. The crewed orbital test flight would follow sometime in 2017.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Iconic Kennedy Space Center Countdown Clock Retires

Iconic Kennedy Space Center Countdown Clock seen here retires
NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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In another sign of dramatically changing times since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, the world famous Countdown Clock that ticked down to numerous blastoffs at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site and was ever present to billions of television viewers worldwide, has been retired.

Years of poor weather and decades of unforgiving time have visibly taken their toll on the iconic Countdown Clock beloved by space enthusiasts across the globe – as I have personally witnessed over years of reporting on launches from the KSC Press Site.

It was designed in the 1960s and has been counting down launches both manned and unmanned since the Apollo 12 moon landing mission in November 1969. And it continued through the final shuttle mission liftoff in July 2011 and a variety of unmanned NASA launches since then.

The countdown clock’s last use came just two months ago in September 2014 during the SpaceX CRS-4 launch to the ISS, which I attended along with the STS-135 launch.

The clock is located just a short walk away from another iconic NASA symbol – the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) – which assembled the Apollo/Saturn and Space Shuttle stacks for which it ticked down to blastoff. See photo below.

A new clock should be in place for NASA’s momentous upcoming launch of the Orion crew capsule on its inaugural unmanned test flight on Dec. 4, 2014.

Space Shuttle Endeavour blasts off on her 25th and final mission from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011 at 8:56 a.m. View from the world famous countdown clock at T Plus 5 Seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space Shuttle Endeavour blasts off on her 25th and final mission from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011 at 8:56 a.m. View from the world famous countdown clock at T Plus 5 Seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Because of its age, it has become harder to replace broken pieces.

“Maintaining the clock was becoming problematic,” NASA Press spokesman Allard Beutel told Universe Today.

It displays only time in big bold digits. But of course in this new modern digital era it will be replaced by one with a modern multimedia display, similar to the screens seen at sporting venues.

“The new clock will not only be a timepiece, but be more versatile with what we can show on the digital display,” Beutel told me.

The countdown clock is a must see for journalists, dignitaries and assorted visitors alike. Absolutely everyone, and I mean everyone !! – wants a selfie or group shot with it in some amusing or charming way to remember good times throughout the ages.

And of course, nothing beats including the countdown clock and the adjacent US flag in launch pictures in some dramatic way.

Indeed the clock and flag are officially called “The Press Site: Clock and Flag Pole” and are were listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 21, 2000.

The clock was officially powered down for the last time at 3:45 p.m. EDT on Nov. 19, 2014.

Famous KSC Press Site Countdown Clock and US Flag with VAB during SpaceX CRS-5 launch in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Famous KSC Press Site Countdown Clock and US Flag with VAB during SpaceX CRS-4 launch in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“The countdown clock at Kennedy’s Press Site is considered one of the most-watched timepieces in the world and may only be second in popularity to Big Ben’s Great Clock in London, England. It also has been the backdrop for a few Hollywood movies,” noted a NASA press release announcing the impending shutdown of the iconic clock.

“It is so absolutely unique — the one and only — built for the world to watch the countdown and launch,” said Timothy M. Wright, IMCS Timing, Countdown and Photo Services. “From a historical aspect, it has been very faithful to serve its mission requirements.”

The famous landmark stands nearly 6 feet (70 inches) high, 26 feet (315 inches) wide is 3 feet deep and sits on a triangular concrete and aluminum base.

Each numerical digit (six in all) is about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide. Each digit uses 56 40-watt light bulbs, the same ones found at the local hardware store. There are 349 total light bulbs in the clock, including the +/- sign (nine) and pair of colons (four), according to a NASA statement.

The new clock will be about the same size.

Fortunately for space fans, there is some good news!

The Countdown Clock will be moved to the nearby Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) and placed on permanent display for public viewing.

Details soon!

Space Shuttle Discovery awaits blast off on her final mission from Pad 39 A on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space on February 24, 2011.  Prelaunch twilight view from the countdown clock at the KSC Press Site. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space Shuttle Discovery awaits blast off on her final mission from Pad 39 A on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space on February 24, 2011. Prelaunch twilight view from the countdown clock at the KSC Press Site. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Stripped Down Discovery rolls towards Retirement at Kennedy Space Center

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Space Shuttle Discovery was briefly on public display on Wednesday July 13 as she emerged from the hanger at the Kennedy Space Center where she has been undergoing processing for retirement since her final landing on the STS-133 mission.

It was a rather stark and sad moment because Discovery looked almost naked and downtrodden – and there was no doubt that she would never again fly majestically to space because huge parts of the orbiter were totally absent.

Discovery was stripped bare of her three main engines and orbital maneuvering pods at the rear and she had a giant hole in the front, just behind the nose, that was covered in see through plastic sheeting that formerly housed her now missing forward thrusters. Without these essential components, Discovery cannot move 1 nanometer.

When the Space Shuttle is forcibly retired in about a week, America will have no capability to launch astronauts into space and to the International Space Station for many many years to come.

Discovery was pulled a quarter mile from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to make room for Space Shuttle Atlantis when she returns next week from the STS-135 mission, according to Stephanie Stilson, the flow manager for Discovery, in an interview with Universe Today.

Stephanie Stilson,NASA KSC flow manager for Discovery. Credit: Ken Kremer

STS-135 is the 135th and final mission of NASA’s 30 year long Space Shuttle Program.

NASA now only has control of two of the three shuttle OPF’s since one OPF has been handed over to an unnamed client, Stilson said.

Stilson is leading the NASA team responsible for safing all three Space Shuttle Orbiters. “We are removing the hypergolic fuel and other toxic residues to prepare the orbiters for display in the museums where they will be permanently housed.”

“The safing work on Discovery should be complete by February 2012,” Stilson told me. “NASA plans to transport Discovery to her permanent home at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on April 12, 2012, which coincides with the anniversary of the first shuttle launch on April 12, 1981.”

Discovery Photo Album by Ken Kremer

Discovery emerges from OPF 2 processing hanger. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery exits OPF 2 minus main engines. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery moves from OPF 2 to VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery moves from OPF 2 to VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery on public display on Wednesday July 13. Credit: Ken Kremer
Below Discovery’s wing. Credit: Ken Kremer
Gaping hole in Discovery - minus forward reaction control thruster. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view of Discovery beside VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery entering the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery enters the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Viewing Discovery from the 5th Floor of the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery parked on the ground floor of the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

Robo Trek Debuts … Robonaut 2 Unleashed and joins First Human-Robot Space Crew

Star Trek’s Data must be smiling.

One of his kind has finally made it to the High Frontier. The voyages of Robo Trek have begun !

Robonaut 2, or R2, was finally unleashed from his foam lined packing crate by ISS crewmembers Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli on March 15 and attached to a pedestal located inside its new home in the Destiny research module. R2 joins the crew of six human residents as an official member of the ISS crew. See the video above and photos below.

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The fancy shipping crate goes by the acronym SLEEPR, which stands for Structural Launch Enclosure to Effectively Protect Robonaut. R2 had been packed inside since last summer.

Robonaut 2 is the first dexterous humanoid robot in space and was delivered to the International Space Station by Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-133.

”Robonaut is now onboard as the newest member of our crew. We are happy to have him onboard. It’s a real good opportunity to help understand the interface of humans and robotics here in space.” said Coleman. “We want to see what Robonaut can do. Congratulations to the team of engineers [at NASA Johnson Space center] who got him ready to fly.”

ISS Flight Engineer Cady Coleman and Robonaut 2

Discovery blasted off for her historic final mission on Feb. 24 and made history to the end by carrying the first joint Human-Robot crew to space.

The all veteran human crew of Discovery was led by Shuttle Commander Steve Lindsey. R2 and SLEEPR were loaded aboard the “Leonardo” storage and logistics module tucked inside the cargo bay of Discovery. Leonardo was berthed at the ISS on March 1 as a new and permanent addition to the pressurized habitable volume of the massive orbiting outpost.

“It feels great to be out of my SLEEPR, even if I can’t stretch out just yet. I can’t wait until I get to start doing some work!” tweeted R2.

The 300-pound R2 was jointly developed in a partnership between NASA and GM at a cost of about $2.5 million. It consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. It was designed with exceptionally dexterous hands and can use the same tools as humans.

ISS Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli and Robonaut 2

R2 will function as an astronaut’s assistant that can work shoulder to shoulder alongside humans and conduct real work, ranging from science experiments to maintenance chores. After further upgrades to accomplish tasks of growing complexity, R2 may one day venture outside the ISS to help spacewalking astronauts.

“It’s a dream come true to fly the robot to the ISS,” said Ron Diftler in an interview at the Kennedy Space Center. Diftler is the R2 project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

President Obama called the joint Discovery-ISS crew during the STS-133 mission and said he was eager to see R2 inside the ISS and urged the crew to unpack R2 as soon as possible.

“I understand you guys have a new crew member, this R2 robot,” Obama said. “I don’t know whether you guys are putting R2 to work, but he’s getting a lot of attention. That helps inspire some young people when it comes to science and technology.”

Commander Lindsey replied that R2 was still packed in the shipping crate – SLEEPR – and then joked that, “every once in a while we hear some scratching sounds from inside, maybe, you know, ‘let me out, let me out,’ we’re not sure.”

Robonaut 2 is free at last to meet his destiny in space and Voyage to the Stars.

“I don’t have a window in front of me, but maybe the crew will let me look out of the Cupola sometime,” R2 tweeted from the ISS.

Read my earlier Robonaut/STS-133 stories here, here, here and here.

This isn’t an animation or computer graphics.
I’m in space, says Robonaut 2 from inside the Destiny module at the ISS. Credit: NASA
Robonaut 2 unveiled at the ISS.
Robonaut 2, the dexterous humanoid astronaut helper, is pictured in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station.
Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka and Robonaut 2 inside the ISS
R2A waving goodbye.
Robonaut R2A waving goodbye as Robonaut R2B launches into space aboard STS-133 from the Kernnedy Space Center. R2 is the first humanoid robot in space. Credit: Joe Bibby
R2A waving goodbye to twin brother R2B launching aboad Space Shuttle Discovery on Feb 14, 2011. Credit: Joe Bibby
Discovery launched on Feb. 14 with crew of six human astronauts and R2 Robonaut on STS-133 mission.
First joint Human – Robot crew. Credit: Ken Kremer
The twin brother of the R2 Robonaut and their NASA/GM creators at KSC.
Robonaut 2 and the NASA/GM team of scientists and engineers watched the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery and the first joint Human-Robot crew on the STS-133 mission on Feb. 24, 2011 from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer

Discovery: Mission Complete

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CAPE CANAVERAL – After logging over a year’s worth of flight time in space, the space shuttle Discovery wrapped up a historic career by safely touching down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 11:57 a.m. EDT. The shuttle landed at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility on runway 15.

Discovery’s final mission was a resupply flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The shuttle delivered the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) to the orbiting outpost. Among other things, the PMM carried the first humanoid robot in space – Robonaut-2 (R2) inside. R2 is also the first robot that the U.S. has flown to the ISS.

The crew that flew Discovery on her final mission consisted of Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot, Eric Boe and Mission Specialists; Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and Stephen Bowen. Bowen actually was not slated to fly this mission; he was a last-minute replacement for Tim Kopra who broke his hip in a bicycle accident in January.

The lead-up to Discovery’s final mission was one filled with technical hurdles that NASA’s engineers had to overcome before the shuttle thundered one last time to orbit. On the Nov. 5 launch attempt a leak at the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate (GUCP) caused a scrub. Upon inspection technicians found a section of popped-up foam on the shuttle’s external tank – this led them to discovering numerous, small cracks in the aluminum body of the external tank itself.

STS-133 marks the 39th and final mission for Discovery. The orbiter will now be retired. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

When Discovery was set to launch on Feb.24, a range issue crept up at the last minute almost scrubbing the launch. It was cleared with only seconds to spare.

Discovery’s service record is a distinguished one. Whenever NASA had a critical mission to fly – Discovery got the nod. The orbiter carried Sen. Jake Garn as well as former Mercury astronaut and Senator John Glenn to orbit. It delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to space. And it returned the U.S. space program to orbit, twice, after the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

“If you think of a vehicle that’s 27 years old, you never see a vehicle that age that never comes back with no flaws, however Discovery did just that, she functioned flawlessly,” said Commander Steve Lindsey upon landing. “This is a tribute to the Kennedy Space Center team.”

Discovery sits on KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility after completing its highly-successful final mission. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The next phase of Discovery’s career is retirement; she will now head to the Smithsonian Institute’s Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center in Washington D.C. where she will be put on display. Discovery will take the place where Discovery currently resides.

“Discovery is an amazing spacecraft and she has served her country well,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The success of this mission and those that came before it is a testament to the diligence and determination of everyone who has worked on Discovery and the Space Shuttle Program, over these many years. As we celebrate the many accomplishments of this magnificent ship, we look forward to an exciting new era of human spaceflight that lies ahead.”

There are only two missions left in the shuttle program, STS-134 onboard Endeavour which is slated to fly on Apr. 19 and STS-135 which will be flown by Atlantis on June 28.

Discovery touches down at Kennedy Space Center's runway 15, wrapping up a 27 year career. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian
A long-range shot, showing Discovery on approach to the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: Jason Rhian

STS-133 Crew Pays Tribute to Shuttle Discovery

The STS-133 crew sent down a video from orbit today where they each paid tribute to the legacy of space shuttle Discovery. My favorite line was from Nicole Stott: “I’m looking forward to bringing her home to the people who care for her the most, to the time when we are on the runway and can look back and still see her standing on her own gear, with her own proud wings holding her up before she goes back to that hanger for the last time.”

Best Images from STS-133: Discovery’s Final Mission in Pictures

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As space shuttle Discovery prepares to return home from its final mission to space, let’s take a look back at the STS-133 mission, an historic “last” for the program’s most-traveled shuttle. “I think the legacy that this shuttle has made for herself is just nothing short than cause for celebration,” said mission specialist Michael Barratt during press conference from orbit on March 8.

“It’s going to be sad when it’s over, when we land tomorrow or the next day,” said STS-133 commander Steve Lindsey. “The hardest part of this for me is giving up the capability. It can do everything except leave low-Earth orbit…There is not a single thing wrong with her. Every single system and every piece of every system is working just like it’s brand new.”

After a successful launch, the Remote Manipulator System/Orbiter Boom Sensor System (RMS/OBSS) equipped with special cameras, begins to conduct thorough inspections of the shuttle's thermal tile system on flight day 2. Photo credit: NASA
This view of the nose, the forward underside and crew cabin of the space shuttle Discovery was provided by an Expedition 26 crew member during a survey of the approaching STS-133 vehicle prior to docking with the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
ISS tally ho! A view the space station as Discovery approaches for docking. Compare this image with one below, taken as Discovery departs to see the addition of the PMM. Credit: NASA
Backdropped by a blue and white part of Earth, space shuttle Discovery is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 26 crew member as the shuttle approaches the International Space Station during STS-133 rendezvous and docking operations. Docking occurred at 2:14 p.m. (EST) on Feb. 26, 2011. A Russian Progress spacecraft docked to the space station is also featured in the image. Credit: NASA
A view of the docked space shuttle Discovery during the STS-133 mission, along with and the Canadian-built robot Dextre, and other parts of the ISS. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli (left), Expedition 26 flight engineer; and NASA astronaut Steve Bowen, STS-133 mission specialist, are pictured in the Quest airlock of the International Space Station as they prepare for the start of the mission's first spacewalk. Credit: NASA
Astronauts Steve Bowen and Alvin drew work in tandem on one of the truss sections of the ISS during the first spacewalk of the STS-133 mission. Credit: NAS
Astronaut Alvin Drew during the first spacewalk of the STS-133 mission. Credit: NASA

The first spacewalk of the mission lasted six-hours and 34-minutes. Alvin Drew and Steve Bowen installed a power extension cable, move a failed ammonia pump module to the External Stowage Platform 2 on the Quest Airlock for return to Earth at a later date, installed a camera wedge on the right hand truss segment, installed extensions to the mobile transporter rail and exposed the Japanese “Message in a Bottle” experiment to space.

Cady Coleman, Expedition 26 flight engineer, is pictured near a Japanese-designed metal cylinder floating freely in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station while space shuttle Discovery remains docked with the station. On Feb. 28, spacewalkers Steve Bowen and Alvin Drew opened and 'filled' the cylinder, named "Message in a Bottle", with space, or rather the vacuum of outer space, and then sealed it to be brought back to Earth with the Discovery crew. Credit: NAS
The newly-attached Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) and a docked Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Credit: NASA
NASA astronauts Scott Kelly (foreground), Expedition 26 commander; and Steve Lindsey, STS-133 commander, are pictured in the newly-installed Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, this view shows the Cupola of the International Space Station and a docked Russian Progress spacecraft, taken during the STS-133 mission. Credit: NASA
Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is pictured in the Cupola of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Alvin Drew, STS-133 mission specialist, is pictured in his sleeping bag, which is attached in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
The crews from STS-133 and the ISS Expedition 26 in the newly installed Permanent Multipurpose Module. Credit: NASA

Joint crew photo inside the newest module, the PMM — which is basically a big storage closet for the ISS. The STS-133 crew members, all attired in red shirts(from left)are NASA astronauts Alvin Drew, Eric Boe (below), Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt, Steve Bowen and Steve Lindsey (below). The dark blue-attired Expedition 26 crew members, from bottom left, are NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. In the center of the photo are Dmitry Kondratyev and Alexander Y. Kaleri.

Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, Expedition 26 flight engineer, moves stowage containers in the Unity node of the International Space Station. Credit: NAS
Alvin Drew works outside during the second EVA of the STS-133 mission. Credit: NASA
Anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint, NASA astronaut Steve Bowen works outside the ISS during the second EVA of the STS-133 mission. Credit: NASA
The space shuttle Discovery as seen from the International Space Station, flying over southwestern coast of Morocco in the northern Atlantic. During a post undocking fly-around, the crew members aboard the two spacecraft collected a series of photos of each other's vehicle. Credit: NASA
Backdropped against the blackness of spaec and clouds over Earth, the International Space Station is seen from Discovery as the shuttle departed from the station. Credit: NAS
Disovery departing the ISS for the final time. Credit: NASA

Larger versions of all these images can be found at NASA’s Human Spaceflight website, under the STS-133 gallery.

Click here to see our gallery of launch images for Discovery’s final flight.

Here’s a video recap of the STS-133 mission:

Double Spaceship Sighting Alert – and last chance to see Discovery in orbit

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UPDATE: We’ve already got a sighting! The image above was taken this evening in the UK by science writer Will Gater.

Space shuttle Discovery undocked from the ISS on early Monday, March 7, and depending where you live, you might have an opportunity to see the two spaceships flying in tandem. This is an incredible sight, and will be the last opportunity to see Discovery in orbit, as she will be retired after she lands and completes the STS-133 mission. Spaceweather.com reports that the station and shuttle will be flying over parts of the United States and Europe Monday and Tuesday, appearing in the night sky as a closely-spaced pair of bright lights. The ISS is bigger, so will appear as the brighter object trailing the smaller Discovery as they move across the sky.

To find out if you’ll be able to see the two spaceships in your area, there are a few different sites to check out:

NASA has a Skywatch page where you can find your specific city to look for satellite sighting info.

Spaceweather.com, has a Satellite Tracker Tool. Just put in your zip code (good for the US and Canada) to find out what satellites will be flying over your house.

Heaven’s Above also has a city search, but also you can input your exact latitude and longitude for exact sighting information, helpful if you live out in the country.

Seeing the two spacecraft flying closely in tandem is a very unique and thrilling sight. Good luck!

Below, watch some of the incredible views as Discovery performed the fly-around maneuver of the ISS early Monday.

Special Star Trek Song Beamed Up To Space Shuttle

William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk on the original Star Trek television series, provided a very special message to the crew of space shuttle Discovery during the STS-133 Flight Day 12 wakeup call.

With strains of Alexander Courage’s famous theme song from Star Trek playing, Shatner replaced the original television introduction with, “Space, the final frontier. These have been the voyages of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Her 30 year mission: To seek out new science. To build new outposts. To bring nations together on the final frontier. To boldly go, and do, what no spacecraft has done before.”

Continue reading “Special Star Trek Song Beamed Up To Space Shuttle”

Ground-Based Observations Capture Spacewalking Astronaut in Action

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More impressive ground based images of the STS-133 mission, this time, Amateur astronomer Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands took images during one of the spacewalks for the mission, and likely captured astronaut Steve Bowen at work on the end of the Canadarm 2! Click on the image above, or go to Ralf’s website for a better view and more information.

Another amateur astronomer from the UK, Martin Lewis also took similar images of the spacewalk.

Ralf uses a 10 inch Newtonian telescope with a videocam eyepiece, and manually tracks the ISS and other objects across the sky. He takes most of his images in color to obtain the maximum possible information of the objects.

He took a similar image about 2 years ago of astronaut Joe Acaba on an EVA outside the ISS in March of 2009, which was featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day. He has also taken images of of ISS and Dexter, the special purpose manipulator, or this one of space shuttle Discovery on the STS-131 mission.