Tags: US | Space | Shuttle

Space Shuttle Discovery, 7 Astronauts Blast off

Monday, 05 Apr 2010 06:35 AM

Space shuttle Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station.

Discovery and seven astronauts blasted off shortly before sunrise Monday. They're delivering thousands of pounds of supplies and experiments to keep the station running long after the shuttles retire later this year.

Three women are riding aboard Discovery. A fourth is already at the space station. She arrived Sunday, courtesy of the Russians. That sets a record for the most women flying on spacecraft at the same time.

This was NASA's last scheduled shuttle launch in darkness. Only three missions remain after this one.

Discovery's astronauts waved and gave thumbs-up as they headed to the launch pad early Monday for a pre-dawn launch to the International Space Station, one of the last few shuttle flights.

Discovery was scheduled to blast off at 6:21 a.m., nearly an hour before sunrise. The shuttle and its crew of seven will deliver spare parts and science experiments to the nearly completed space station.

There were screams of excitement for Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, set to become the second woman from her country to soar into space. "Get back, get back!" someone shouted as Yamazaki ventured too close to the picture-taking crowd.

Commander Alan Poindexter paused at the base of Discovery to take pictures of his crew. Before boarding the shuttle, he held up a handwritten sign telling his wife and two sons, "I love you! See you soon."

Forecasters put the odds of good weather for the launch at 80 percent. Fog was the lone concern.

Fueling was delayed a little Sunday because of a voltage spike in one of Discovery's fuel cells. Engineers suspected the brief surge was related to the cockpit lights, and said it posed no problem for liftoff.

The mission is one of four remaining shuttle flights. NASA plans to retire the fleet this fall.

Once that happens, the space station will rely exclusively on other countries' vessels for crews and supplies. Three new residents arrived Sunday — one American and two Russians. They wished everyone a happy Easter after their Russian spacecraft docked.

The station's population will temporarily swell from six to 13 when Discovery arrives. Four will be women, the most ever in space at once. And two of the astronauts will be Japanese — another first. Scores of journalists and space officials from Japan descended on the launch site to witness the big event. Area roads also were jammed with post-Easter vacationers and spring breakers, all hoping to view a launch as the program winds down.

Discovery's mission will last nearly two weeks and coincide with the 29th anniversary of the first shuttle flight on April 12. Three days later, President Barack Obama will visit the Cape Canaveral area to outline his post-shuttle plans for NASA. Obama already has canceled NASA's follow-up moon program.

This is expected to be the last shuttle launch in darkness. Discovery was supposed to fly two weeks ago, which would have meant an afternoon liftoff. But unusually cold weather over the winter stalled launch preparations and drove the flight into the wee hours. Poindexter and his crew will work the graveyard shift in orbit.


On the Net:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission—pages/shuttle/main/index.html

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