CAPE CANAVERAL — Nearly four months late — and held up by a last-minute computer glitch — Space Shuttle Discovery blasted off under clear blue skies Thursday afternoon on its final mission to the International Space Station before it is retired next month.
The 27-year-old orbiter, with a crew of six astronauts, thundered from the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center at 4:53 p.m. as tens of thousands of spectators cheered NASA's oldest and most-traveled shuttle.
"The final liftoff of Discovery," exulted Mike Curie, NASA's launch commentator, "a tribute to the dedication, hard work and pride of America's space shuttle team."
It was the 39th liftoff for Discovery. Its 11-day mission, commanded by space veteran Steve Lindsey, will deliver supplies and a humanoid robot to the International Space Station.
The launch marks the beginning of the end of the space-shuttle program, 30 years after NASA began launching reusable, do-all spaceships into orbit to do everything from launching satellites to building the space station itself. After Endeavour in April and Atlantis – now set for June – NASA will have no manned-space rocket for the first time in 60 years.
NASA officials who have spent their careers in the shuttle program said they would hold back their emotions until the end. Still, they acknowledged that the end was on their minds.
Launch Director Mike Leinbach recalled that the first launch he saw was Discovery's maiden flight in 1984. "This is a pretty tremendous day in space flight for us," he said.
Thursday's launch was delayed a little over three minutes by a computer glitch experienced by the U.S. Air Force Range Safety Office, which assures that the Atlantic Ocean downrange from KSC is clear of ship and airplane traffic. Lift-off occurred with seconds to spare before the launch window closed.
"We had about two seconds of hold time remaining, which is about one second more than Mike [Leinbach] needed to get the job done, so we had plenty of margin," quipped Launch Committee Chairman Mike Moses.
Leinbach acknowledged a "fairly large size" chunk of insulating foam fell from Discovery's fuel tank nearly four minutes into flight. But he said that was late enough into the flight that engineers weren't worried the foam did any damage to the orbiter.
Throngs of people watched the launch from vantage points all along the Space Coast. Among those in the VIP area were Florida Gov. Rick Scott, watching the first launch since he took office in January, as well as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
In addition to Lindsey, 50, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who flew dozens of missions in Iraq, the crew includes pilot Eric Boe, 45, an Air Force colonel and fellow fighter-pilot veteran; and mission specialists Alvin Drew, 47; Michael Barratt, 51, a medical doctor; Nicole Stott, a former mission engineer at Kennedy Space Center; and Steve Bowen, 47.
Bowen replaced Tim Kopra, who was injured in a mid-January bicycle accident. Bowen flew aboard Atlantis last May and will be the first astronaut to fly on consecutive shuttle missions.
Discovery was originally planned to lift off on Nov. 1. But a hydrogen leak, followed by the discovery of cracks in the insulating foam and some support rods on the fuel tank, caused a lengthy delay as NASA engineers labored to identify a cause and a fix.
The highlight of the mission will be delivery of Robonaut 2, otherwise known as R2, a 40-inch robot built by General Motors that looks like a human from the torso up, with capabilities to one day be an active member of the space station crew.
R2 will spend the next year or so attached to a stand in the U.S. lab on the space station, simply being tested in zero-gravity and doing such things as turning knobs, plugging things in and other simple manipulation tasks.
But its long-term prospects – including doing actual work in the space station and even outside it in space – are being eagerly anticipated by both NASA and robotic engineers all over the world.
"So in a sense, while it [the testing phase] may be a single step for this robot, it's really a giant leap forward for tin mankind," Rob Ambrose, acting chief of NASA's automation simulation and robotics division, joked at a recent briefing, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong's famous moon-landing statement.
Indeed, NASA expects to upgrade and reprogram R2 so that it becomes a mechanical member of the crew. Eventually, it will get legs or some manner of lower body and be able to work with astronauts on simple tasks such as vacuuming, or more-complex maintenance and repairs and assisting astronauts on space walks. Finally, it could become a caretaker or experiment tender, working on assignments after astronauts have left.
Longer-term, R2 even has potential for deep-space work, Ambrose said.
NASA first began developing the robot 15 years ago, and the R2 model – the second generation of the concept -- was developed in partnership with General Motors, at a cost of about $2.5 million per robot. Two have been built.
From waist to head, it stands 3-feet-4 inches and weighs 330 pounds. Built primarily of aluminum and steel, it has a soft, fleshy exterior, designed so that astronauts would not be hurt if they banged into it. R2's arms give it an 8-foot wingspan. Its head is equipped with eight cameras. Its computer brain is in its torso.
For now, it will remain in a crate until the space station astronauts finish more-pressing tasks and have the time to set it up. Robonaut 2 has only a one-way ticket to space, and it's been waiting for months inside Discovery's hold.
"As far as we know we have not heard any knocking sounds or muffled cries of 'Are we there yet?'" said Scott Higginbotham, payload manager for the mission.
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