At 4:53 p.m. eastern the space shuttle Discovery launched on what is her final mission. It was a launch whose countdown went smoothly until the final few minutes when a range safety command computer malfunctioned, almost postponing the launch a day.
The drama began shortly before countdown was to resume at the t-minus 9:00 minute mark. The range safety command computer was not working properly and if not fixed in time would mean a no go for launch. Mike Leinbach, the shuttle launch director told everyone to “calm down” and work the issue. It was decided the countdown would hold again at t-minus 5:00 minutes to see if the computer could be fixed. The launch window was very tight. As time was winding down the word came that the problem had been resolved and a GO was given for launch with only seconds to spare.
As it turned out Discovery launched with exactly 2 seconds to spare cutting it mighty close. But has Leinbach stated at the post-launch press briefing “this is what we train for”.
The shuttle will dock with the space station on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. eastern.
The crew woke up at 6:54 a.m. eastern this morning and will perform a scan of the shuttle’s thermal protection system using the orbiter boom sensor system attached to the end of Discovery’s robotic Canadarm.
This was the 39th and final flight for Discovery. She appears to be retiring in what is really her prime. Designed to last 100 missions she’s already had several major upgrades. But after the loss of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia and following exhaustive investigations it was decided to retire the shuttle fleet. There are two missions left after this one, Endeavour is scheduled for her last mission on April 19th and Atlantis is scheduled for her last flight on June 28th.
NASA will have to rely on the Russians and their Soyuz spacecraft for future astronaut flights to the space station. That is until their new Orion crew capsule or one of several commercial carriers are ready to pick up the load.
The shuttle was also a cargo workhorse being able to carry seven times as much cargo as the current Russian unmanned Progress spacecraft does to the space station.
Discovery is expected to land at Kennedy Space Center in the early afternoon of March 7th.