Thursday, February 24, 2011

Shuttle Discovery launches on her final voyage

Discovery soars toward space on her final launch. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle Discovery lifted-off today on one last voyage upon the ocean of space.

Carrying a crew of six astronauts and one robonaut, Discovery leaped skyward and along a path up the eastern coastline of the United States.

"For those watching, get ready to witness the majesty and the power of Discovery as she lifts-off one final time," Discovery's commander Steve Lindsey announced minutes before lift-off.

The countdown was halted at T-5 minutes in an unplanned hold due to an Air Force Range Safety computer issue which is needed to communicate with the spacecraft during launch.

With nearly three minutes of available time to hold the count, the range worked the issue with style and coolness. The countdown was held and the launch team waited.

Two minutes went by and no word from the range.

Then word came that the range would be go for launch, and the control center asked for an official word, "Go" was the word from the range safety and they disabled the hold fire button.

The countdown picked up at T-5 minutes giving the launch team only three seconds to spare before launch control would have had to scrub for the day.

The eastern range enabled the hold fire switch so that launch control could not launch with the down computer.

"The inhibit had to be removed and then we had to instruct the GLS (ground launch sequencer) operator (George Thomas) to pick up the count,"
Mission Management Team chairman Mike Moses stated.
"They are the launch decision authority for launch," Mosses added.
Today marked Thomas' last day at NASA as he is one of several beginning a volunteer lay-off due to the scale back of the shuttle program with only two shuttle flights left after Discovery.

NASA's oldest space shuttle launched at 4:53:24 p.m. EST, from launch complex 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center to begin an 11-day flight to resupply the International Space Station.

An external tank camera witnessed several foam pieces shake free from the tank, the largest at just before the four minute mark into the launch. The 8-inch x 10-inch piece of foam was likely not haven impacted the orbiter since it was above the dense region of the atmosphere.

Mission control radioed the foam loss to the crew at 7 PM, stating that there was no strong concern.

None of Discovery's burns to catch up with the station will change, NASA states.

NASA and it's international partners will likely elect to have a Russian Soyuz TMA spacecraft fly around the space station for an out of this world photo opportunity on the last day of docked operations.

A decision to have the Soyuz fly around will come midway into Discovery's mission, and it will also add an additional day to shuttle's flight.

Today's launch marked Discovery's thirty-ninth and final climb to space. The most traveled of any of the five space-flown orbiters, Discovery has traveled over 143 million miles and will add nearly five million more upon touchdown in twelve days at Kennedy.

Huge crowds gathered along the Space Coast, from north Titusville south to Jetty Park and Port Canaveral, and across the space center, to watch the final launch of the storied spacecraft.

Guests included Florida Gov. Rick Scott and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

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