Space Shuttle Discovery lands for final time

The Space Shuttle Discovery successfully landed Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:57 AM EST (16:57 UTC) for what is scheduled to be the final time in its operational career.

Upon landing, the shuttle and its six-person crew wrapped up the STS-133 mission, the Discovery’s 39th and final flight into space. STS-133 launched on February 24, after several launch delays since last November due to numerous technical issues. During the twelve-day mission, the crew transported supplies and parts to the International Space Station (ISS) including Robonaut2, the first dexterous humanoid robot in space, the Permanent Multipurpose Module, and ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4.

During the mission, two spacewalks were performed by astronauts Stephen Bowen and Alvin Drew to install parts and perform maintenance on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory.

The Space Shuttle Discovery landed for the final time Wednesday, wrapping up a twelve-day mission and a 39-mission career. Image: NASA.

Six astronauts and cosmonauts, members of the Expedition 26 crew, remain aboard the ISS to carry out a long-duration mission aboard the outpost.

STS-133 is Discovery’s 39th and final mission into space, the 35th shuttle mission to the ISS, and the 133rd flight in the entire shuttle program. Discovery has docked with two different space stations, Mir and the ISS, and was the first shuttle to fly after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Discovery made its maiden flight on STS-41-D in 1984, having since become the most experienced and oldest surviving space shuttle, and delivering payloads to orbit such as the Hubble Space Telescope and becoming the first shuttle to fly a Russian cosmonaut into space.

Discovery, having completed its final flight, has been offered by NASA to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to display to the public. The museum, however, is in the process of determining how to obtain the funds necessary to transfer the shuttle. A decision regarding this possibility is expected to be made in April.

A NASA commentator describes Wednesday’s landing as “the end of a historic journey. To a ship that has led the way, time and time again, we bid farewell to Discovery.”

Two remaining shuttle flights are scheduled later this year, STS-134 and STS-135, before the retirement of the space shuttle fleet.


Space Shuttle Discovery launches on final mission

At 4:53 p.m. (EDT), Space Shuttle Discovery took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on its final mission, STS-133. Its mission is to deliver and install onto the International Space Station (ISS), the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 and provide critical spare components for the station. Six astronauts, Steve Lindsey, Eric Boe, Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and Steve Bowen, are participating in the mission. The shuttle is also carrying Robonaut2, the first dexterous humanoid robot to be in space. Although its first priority will be to test its operation in microgravity, upgrades could eventually allow it to fulfill its ultimate purpose of becoming an astronaut helper on boring or dangerous tasks.

The Space Shuttle Discovery launched on its final mission, STS-133 (crew pictured), today. Image: NASA.

The launch of Discovery, which was supposed to occur at 4:50 p.m., was delayed for three minutes due to a technical problem in the shuttle’s command system and a chipped heat shield tile near the crew hatch which needed to be patched. The launch was also repeatedly postponed since November 1 due to various technical problems with the shuttle’s systems and a hydrogen leak in the fuel tank along with cracks and bad weather. A small piece of foam broke off during the launch but NASA has reported that it is unlikely to cause problems.

Discovery and the crew of STS-133 are scheduled to spend just under two weeks in space and aboard the ISS, logging 4.5 million additional miles of flight.

Space Shuttle Discovery launches on the STS-133 mission. Image: JoshuaZ.

The launch comes just hours after an unmanned automated European cargo spacecraft, ATV-2, docked with the orbiting outpost to deliver supplies and equipment to the crew.

STS-133 is scheduled to be the final mission of Discovery, with its first being STS-41-D in 1984. Discovery flew 39 flights in its operational history, including the current mission, delivering several payloads to space including the Hubble Space Telescope and visiting two different space stations: Mir and the ISS. STS-133 is the 133rd shuttle mission and the 35th mission to the ISS. Discovery is the oldest surviving shuttle, and has flown more missions than any other shuttle. It was also the first shuttle to fly after the Challenger disaster and was the first shuttle to fly after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Later, Discovery became the first shuttle to fly a Russian cosmonaut.

After the current mission, there will be at most two remaining shuttle flights. Endeavor has one more mission remaining, and if an emergency rescue is needed or more funding is secured, Atlantis will also fly once more before the entire fleet is retired.

“The shuttle has provided an amazing capacity for this country to gather data. I think we’re still sorting through a lot of it, trying to figure out what all we’ve learned from it. This chapter in our space history known as the space shuttle has been incredible,” said Bryan Lunney, lead space shuttle flight director for the mission.

Last Shuttle External Tank Rollout at Michoud Assembly Facility

Commemorating 37 years of successful tank deliveries, NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company will hold a ceremony on Thursday, July 8, at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to rollout the final external tank for the last space shuttle flight.

The last external tank scheduled to fly on a shuttle mission was completed on June 25 by Lockheed Martin workers at Michoud. The tank, designated ET-138, will travel on a wheeled transporter one mile to the Michoud barge dock. It will be accompanied by the Storyville Stompers, a traditional area brass band, and hundreds of handkerchief-waving employees in typical New Orleans fashion and spirit during the ceremony. ET-138 will then travel on a 900-mile sea journey to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will support shuttle Endeavour’s STS-134 launch.

The external tank, the “gas tank” for the orbiter, holds the propellants used by the space shuttle main engines. It also is the “backbone” of the shuttle during launch, providing structural support for attachment with the solid rocket boosters and orbiter. It is the only component of the space shuttle that is not reused. Approximately 8.5 minutes into the flight, with its propellant used, the tank is jettisoned into the ocean.

External tank ET-138

Taller than a 15-story building and more than 27 feet in diameter, the external tank absorbs the 7.8 million pounds of thrust of the three space shuttle main engines and solid rocket boosters during a space shuttle launch. It feeds 145,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 390,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen to the main engines.

Space Shuttle Endeavour launches into an early morning sky at  NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

External tank ET-138 (top) will help launch Space shuttle Endeavour (bottom) into space on its last mission later this year. (Image credit: NASA)

The three main components of the external tank include the liquid oxygen tank, liquid hydrogen tank and the collar-like intertank, which connects the two propellant tanks. The intertank houses instrumentation and processing equipment and provides the attachment structure for the solid rocket boosters.

When ET-138 arrives at Kennedy, processing will begin to mate it with shuttle Endeavour and solid rocket boosters for the STS-134 mission, scheduled to launch no earlier than mid-November. The mission will deliver the Express Logistics Carrier 3 and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. It will be the 36th shuttle mission to the space station and the 134th and final scheduled shuttle flight.

Michoud Space Systems workers, of Lockheed Martin Corporation, Littleton, Colo., have delivered 135 flight tanks to NASA during the 25 years of flying the space shuttle.

Work will be completed on one additional external tank, ET-122, which was at Michoud during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and damaged by falling debris. It is being restored to flight configuration and is scheduled for delivery to Kennedy in late September to serve as the “Launch on Need” tank, if needed, for STS-134.

NASA Updates Shuttle Target Launch Dates For Final Two Flights

WASHINGTON — NASA is targeting approximately 4:33 p.m. EDT on Nov. 1 for the launch of space shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission and 4:19 p.m. EST on Feb. 26, 2011, for the liftoff of shuttle Endeavour’s STS-134 flight from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The target dates were adjusted because critical payload hardware for STS-133 will not be ready in time to support the previously planned Sept. 16 launch. With STS-133 moving to November, STS-134 cannot fly as planned, so the next available launch window is in February 2011.

NASA will schedule the official launch date for each mission following the agency’s Flight Readiness Reviews, which typically occur about two weeks prior to launches. All target launch dates are subject to change.

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