Discovery, NASA’s oldest and most journeyed space shuttle, was poised to launch yesterday on its final mission, wrapping up a near three-decade legacy of orbital travel.
When the storied spacecraft lifts off, it will mark the beginning of the end of the US space shuttle program, with Discovery the first of the remaining three shuttles headed for retirement this year.
The closure of the shuttle program will leave a gaping hole in the US space mission, forcing astronauts to rely on the Russian Soyuz space capsule for transport to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
However, concerns for the future were brushed aside as excitement mounted at Kennedy Space Center for Discovery’s mission, with technical checks moving along smoothly and no hint of the fuel tank woes that delayed the launch in November.
“Everything is on track and going beautifully with the countdown,” mission management team director Mike Moses said. “We’re really looking forward to a very -action-packed, successful mission.”
Cracks on Discovery’s external fuel tank emerged just before launch more than three months ago, causing engineers to puzzle for many weeks over the cause and how to fix it.
Last month, the engineers agreed that installing small metal strips, called radius blocks, on the 6.7m long U-shaped aluminum brackets, called stringers, would reinforce their strength.
Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said the teams preparing Discovery this time had found “no problems at all” ahead of lift-off.
“We’re not tracking any issues and it looks like Discovery will fly this time,” Leinbach said.
The rotating service structure around Discovery was rolled away on Wednesday evening, revealing the shuttle lit up on the launch-pad on a humid, breezy night.
The six astronauts in the crew were to awaken at 7am ahead of the launch, NASA said.
The loading of the external fuel tank was to begin at 7:25am, and the astronauts were expected to board the shuttle at around 1:35pm.
The mission will be led by commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe and astronauts Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, Steve Bowen and Nicole Stott.
Astronaut Tim Kopra was scratched from the crew list after a bicycle accident last month. He was replaced by Bowen.
The crew plans to deliver the Permanent Multipurpose Module, with extra storage space and an area for experiments, as well as some spare parts and the Express Logistic Carrier, an external platform for large equipment.
The shuttle will also bring the first humanoid robot to the ISS. The Robonaut 2 is a joint project of General Motors and NASA and will stay behind when Discovery leaves as a permanent resident of the space station.
The weather forecast was considered exceptionally good.