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Space shuttle: End of an era...

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Thought I would share this article, courtesy of "Yahoo."

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA's most traveled space shuttle, Discovery, was fueled for an afternoon liftoff Thursday on its final voyage after nearly three decades of service.

The flight will be the 39th and final space mission for NASA's oldest surviving orbiter -- shuttles Columbia and Challenger were lost in accidents that claimed the lives of 14 astronauts.

NASA began pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel into Discovery shortly after sunrise, as the six astronauts assigned to the space station delivery mission sat down for breakfast at crew quarters. It was their second stab at this. November's launch attempt never made it past fueling.

Launch manager Mike Moses said everything finally looked to be coming together and noted it was a good day to give it a good shot. Even the weather was looking up: the forecast improved to 90 percent "go" for the 4:50 p.m. liftoff.

This time, NASA was confident no hydrogen gas would leak and no cracks would develop in the external fuel tank. Both problems cropped up during the initial countdown in November, and the repairs took almost four months. The cracks in the midsection of the tank, which holds instruments but no fuel, could have been dangerous.

The shuttle carries a storage room for the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations nearing completion after more than a decade of construction 220 miles above the Earth.

Discovery will head to the International Space Station with the crew, as well as a platform to house spare parts outside the station and equipment and supplies. The cargo includes a humanoid robot, known as Robonaut 2, that will be set up in the U.S. laboratory for a trial run.

This will be the 39th flight for Discovery, set to become the first of the three surviving space shuttles to be retired this year and sent to a museum. It has since logged 143 million miles since its first flight in 1984.

The remaining three ships are being retired due to high operational costs and to free up money to develop new vehicles capable of traveling beyond the space station's orbit.

NASA plans to launch shuttle Endeavour on its final flight in April and end the program with a final cargo haul to the station over the summer aboard space shuttle Atlantis, though funding for that mission has not yet been allotted.

"Landing day is going to be tough," Leinbach said. "Landing day of Discovery, and then Endeavour and especially Atlantis, the last mission, you'll see a lot of people on the runway who will probably choke up some because it's the end of a 30-year program that not only have we worked in and made our livelihoods in, but we've grown to love and appreciate and feel like we're doing something special for the country and, really, the world."

NASA expects 40,000 guests on hand for Discovery's farewell launch, including a small contingent from Congress. Watching with special interest from Mission Control in Houston will be astronaut Timothy Kopra, who was supposed to be the flight's lead spacewalker. He was hurt in a bicycle crash last month and was replaced by Stephen Bowen, who will become the first astronaut to fly back-to-back shuttle missions.

Well before dawn, recreational vehicles lined nearby roads offering the best views of liftoff. Signs outside businesses and government offices in the neighboring towns of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach offered words of encouragement. "The heavens await Discovery," one church proclaimed. Local grocery stores stocked up on extra red, white and blue cakes adorned with shuttle pictures.

Launch director Mike Leinbach noted that it would be bittersweet to see Discovery soar one last time. It will be even tougher to see the oldest surviving shuttle land, he said.

"The emotion will really hit on the runway after the mission is complete," Leinbach told reporters on the eve of launch.

Discovery has flown to the space station 12 times; the upcoming trip will be No. 13. Discovery will spend 11 days in orbit — on top of the 352 days

overall. Discovery has circled Earth 5,628 times, and will rack up another 4.5 million miles this voyage.

"She's been an amazing machine," Leinbach said. "She's done everything we've asked of her."

Its list of achievements include delivering the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit, carrying the first Russian cosmonaut to launch on a U.S. spaceship, returning Mercury astronaut John Glenn to orbit, and bringing shuttle flights back to life after the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

Heading up Discovery's veteran crew is retired Air Force Col. Steven Lindsey. Two of his crew actually lived on the space station in 2009. During the 11-day flight, they will deliver and install a closet-like compartment full of space station supplies — made in Italy and named Leonardo for il Signor da Vinci.

Packed inside the compartment is Robonaut 2, or R2, set to become the first humanoid robot in space. The experimental machine — looking human from the waist up — will remain boxed until after Discovery departs.

Up at the space station, meanwhile, the six-person crew got ready to receive a European cargo ship launched last week from French Guiana. It was due to dock at midmorning, and launch officials were keeping abreast of the events unfolding 220 miles up. A smooth hookup would clear Discovery for launch.

NASA is under presidential direction to retire the shuttle fleet this summer, let private companies take over trips to orbit and focus on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars. There's been considerable disagreement among lawmakers and the space community on how best to accomplish this.

"Godspeed Discovery," retired space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said in a Twitter update Thursday. "Prayers for a safe flight and wisdom for decision makers."


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"This will be the 39th flight for Discovery, set to become the first of the three surviving space shuttles to be retired this year and sent to a museum. It has since logged 143 million miles since its first flight in 1984."


WoW ! who's still driving around in a 1984 car....? :woot: with heaps less milage

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Yes, it is a shame to see the shuttle program end. I've seen a couple of the launches and it was a marvel of technology and engineering. Hopefully, the retirement will give NASA some time to update its technology. I wonder what will be the next space shuttle. I think they called it the x-10 0r something. It looks like a minianture shuttle.

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