Space shuttle blasts off, finally flying on third try

Author: By Marcia Dunn, Associated Press

Discovery lit up the sky for miles around as it thundered away on NASA’s third
launch attempt. Lightning flashed far in the distance, and the ascending
shuttle resembled a bright star until it blinked out of sight five minutes
after liftoff.

The space station was soaring more than 220 miles above the Indian Ocean,
southwest of Tasmania, when Discovery took off. The shuttle will reach the
orbiting outpost tomorrow night.

“It looks like third time really is the charm,” launch director Pete
Nickolenko told commander Rick Sturckow. “We wish you and your team
good luck and Godspeed.”

Tuesday’s launch attempt was called off by thunderstorms and Wednesday’s by
fuel valve trouble. Everything came together in NASA’s favour last night;
even the valve and its indicator switch behaved, allowing Discovery to blast
off seconds before midnight. The shuttle safely reached orbit eight minutes
later.

NASA officials were relieved to see no foam flying off the fuel tank; a
surprising amount of the insulation came off the fuel tank during last
month’s launch of Endeavour, causing minor damage. More analysis is needed
to ascertain whether any debris broke off Discovery’s tank, said space
operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier.

Discovery’s most prominent payload is NASA’s new $5 million (£3m) treadmill,
which is named after Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.

Colbert tried to get a space station room named after himself and even won the
online vote earlier this year, but NASA went with Tranquility instead in
honor of the 40th anniversary of man’s first moon landing.

The comedian said the treadmill ? for “all those chubby astronauts”
? is a consolation prize.

The treadmill is flying up in more than 100 pieces and won’t be put together
until sometime next month.

In all, the space shuttle will deliver about 17,000 pounds of gear to the
space station. The experiments include six mice that will remain at the
orbiting complex until the following shuttle visit in November. Part of a
bone loss study, the mice will be the first mammals ? other than humans ? to
spend a prolonged period at the space station.

“Let’s go step up the science on the international space station,”
Sturckow radioed right before liftoff.

Three spacewalks will be performed during the 13-day shuttle flight, to
install a new ammonia tank, part of the space station’s cooling system, and
replace other equipment and retrieve outdoor experiments.

The station also will get a new resident, Nicole Stott. She will replace an
astronaut who moved in during the 13-day shuttle flight last month. That
spaceman will return to Earth aboard Discovery, as will Buzz Lightyear. The
action figure toy has been in orbit for more than a year, courtesy of Walt
Disney World.

Stott, who will spend at least three months at the space station, tapped her
heart with her right hand before climbing aboard Discovery and said, “I
love you” to the cameras, presumably for her husband and 7-year-old
son.

Discovery’s crew includes two Hispanics, the first time two have flown
together in space. Both are Mexican-Americans, and one of them, Jose
Hernandez, grew up in a migrant worker family. Hernandez will file bilingual
Twitter updates from orbit. A Swede is also on board.

It was NASA’s 33rd nighttime shuttle launch and preceded, by just two days,
the 25th anniversary of Discovery’s first liftoff. Flags flew at half-staff
throughout Kennedy Space Center on Friday in memory of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

There were times last night that NASA feared thunderstorms might cause yet
another delay. Launch officials were in touch with the weather officer every
15 minutes as conditions flip-flopped between “go” and “no go.”

“All the hot air from all the talk we did blew all the clouds away,”
joked Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team.

Only seven shuttle flights remain, including this one. A blue-ribbon review
committee should file its report soon, offering options to President Obama
for the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program. As it stands now, the
space shuttles will be retired after space station construction is completed
in the next year to year-and-a-half.

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