Space Shuttle Discovery arrives at International Space Station – Final time in its career

The Space Shuttle Discovery, flying the STS-133 mission, has successfully rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station (ISS) today at 18:14 UTC for what is scheduled to be the final time in its career.

Discovery is delivering six astronauts to the orbiting outpost, as well as station parts and supplies including the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 and Robonaut2, the first dexterous humanoid robot in space.

The docking, Discovery’s 13th and final scheduled docking, occurred two minutes ahead of schedule, having been originally scheduled for 19:16 GMT today.

The Space Shuttle Discovery (pictured docked to ISS) has docked with the International Space Station for what is scheduled to be the final time on the STS-133 mission today. Image: NASA.

The hatch between the space shuttle and the ISS was opened at 20:16 UTC, after which the crew members of Expedition 26 welcomed the crew of STS-133 aboard the station. The crew then participated in a safety briefing with Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly, while Shuttle Flight Director Bryan Lunney took part in a mission status briefing on the ground which began at 20:50 UTC.

Later on today, crew members Nicole Stott and Michael Barratt are scheduled to move the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 from the payload bay using the shuttle’s robotic arm to the station’s own robot arm for placement on the exterior of the orbital laboratory.

Official STS-133 crew portrait. From left to right: Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Eric Boe, Steven Lindsey, Michael Barratt and Steve Bowen Image: NASA.

There was a delay in the docking mechanism’s ability to make a seal between the two spacecraft during docking operations, so activities occurring later on in the day, including the transfer of ELC-4, may be delayed. This was primarily because of a mis-alignment between the docking systems of the shuttle and station due to gravitational effects. The entire delay took up approximately 40 minutes.

During Discovery’s approach to the station earlier on today, the crew of Expedition 26 took pictures of the shuttle’s underside from the station’s windows in order to assist in analysis of the heat shield of the spacecraft.

NASA officials are debating whether or not to extend the mission an additional day for a photo shoot of the International Space Station, as it is currently host to six docked spacecraft from the United States, Russia, Europe, and Japan. A decision regarding this possibility is expected on Tuesday.

STS-133 is Space Shuttle Discovery’s 39th and final scheduled mission into space and the program’s 35th mission to the ISS, as well as the 133rd in the entire Shuttle Program. There are two flights remaining before the retirement of the fleet that are still in planning: STS-134 and STS-135.

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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.

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