February 1, 2011

Shuttle Discovery Begins Final Journey To Orbit

Space shuttle Discovery began its final journey overnight by rolling out of the assembly building 3.4 miles to the Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad.

With its crew of six astronauts expected to launch on February 24, the shuttle will deliver a storeroom to be attached to the International Space Station (ISS), along with further supplies and spare parts.

Discovery, stacked with its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, took seven hours to complete the roll from Kennedy's vast Vehicle Assembly Building to complex 39A. NASA last tried to launch the vehicle in November but ongoing technical issues, including cracks on its external fuel tank, kept Discovery grounded.

The agency said engineers had now fixed those defects and carried out further work to strengthen the tank.

Space shuttle Discovery, first launched in 1984 is the oldest of the three surviving orbiters. It has since completed 38 missions. Endeavour is expected to fly to the station in April. Atlantis will go no earlier than June, if NASA has funds left in its budget.

Following the fleet's retirement, the plan is for US astronauts to fly to the space station on Russian Soyuz rockets until perhaps the middle of the decade. President Barack Obama and the US Congress have determined that the shuttle fleet should be retired this year despite a public support for continuing flights.

Also, a number of American companies hope to be in a position to sell launch services to NASA on a range of new vehicles.

The plan is for NASA to put its efforts into leading the development of a large rocket that can send astronauts beyond the orbiting ISS to others destinations such as asteroids.

Congress has set out the broad capabilities it expects to see in this rocket and has given a deadline of 2016 for its introduction. However, NASA has said it cannot deliver such a vehicle in the time and with the budget the politicians have specified.


Image Caption: Bathed in bright xenon lights, space shuttle Discovery makes its nighttime trek, known as "rollout," from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett


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