Shuttle Discovery launches successfully

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Space shuttle Discovery with its crew of seven astronauts roared into orbit this morning. It was a wonderful site to see it arcing over the horizon just before sunrise as it started its journey to the International Space Station.

There are now just three launches left as the agency races to stock the space station with spares, supplies and scientific gear before the shuttle fleet is retired later this year.

On this journey, Discovery is carrying eight tons of cargo and science equipment for the station’s laboratories. The 13-day mission, dubbed the “Experiment Express,” has three planned spacewalks to to install a fresh ammonia tank assembly for the lab’s coolant system and retrieve a Japanese experiment from the station’s exterior.

Discovery is commanded by Navy Captain Alan Poindexter, the crew includes rookie pilot James Dutton, flight engineer Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki and veteran spacewalkers Richard Mastracchio and Clayton Anderson.

This is the last shuttle flight to have a crew of seven and this is the first time that four women will be in space at one time as Metcalf-Lindenburger, Wilson and Yamazaki join up with  NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson who is already onboard the station.

The main goal of Discovery on this trip is to deliver supplies that will keep the station operating long after shuttles have been sent to become museum attractions and while no-one quite knows what will happen once these supplies run out  I’m sure there’s a game plan…as I’ll reveal later.

During this mission the crew will be unpacking “Leonardo,” an Italian-made orbital moving van the size of a small bus. Also known as a Multi-Purpose Logistic Module, or MPLM, Leonardo is loaded with science experiments and precious cargo, including a new crew sleep station and a lab freezer.

Shuttle Discovery is pretty well loaded on this mission and evidence of that is the fact that it is estimated that it will take 100 man hours to unload into the ISS.

So while the astronauts are kept busy, the attention of many will likely to be on Kennedy Space Center as President Barack Obama  is scheduled to make a speech on April 15  in regard to his plans for spaceflight after the shuttles are retired.

Obama created something of a furor in the aerospace community in February when he proposed killing NASA’s Constellation program, which had been aimed at returning astronauts to the moon. The end of the shuttle program and the canceling of NASA’s planned replacement program means thousands of looming job losses at KSC and other NASA centers so we’ll all hold our breathe as the White House maintains that its plan to outsource crew and cargo flights to private space companies and replace Constellation with a rocket technology development program will put the agency on a more sustainable footing and will ultimately provide a more a diversified space sector that will lead to more aerospace jobs over the long term. Who are we to question them given everything that’s happened in the last 18 months?

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