August 29, 2009 21:15
Space shuttle Discovery has launched on a mission to deliver new science equipment and other supplies to the International Space Station.
Discovery lifted off one minute before midnight Friday from the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Atlantic coast, carrying nearly 8,000 kilograms of equipment for the International Space Station.
Moments before launch, shuttle launch director Pete Nickolenko radioed Discovery commander Rick Sturckow to say that the shuttle was cleared to go, saying, "We wish you and your team good luck and god speed." Sturckow responded, "Thanks, Pete. On behalf of the Discovery, thanks to everyone who helped prepare for this mission. Let's go step up the science on the International Space Station."
Two earlier attempts to launch Discovery were scrubbed this week, because of lightning storms and a technical problem with the shuttle's fuel valve.
The Discovery crew will spend 13 days in orbit, and astronauts will conduct three space walks after the orbiter's rendezvous with the space station on Sunday. The team will deliver a sleeping quarter and a new treadmill named after American comedian Stephen Colbert. The shuttle's payload also includes new science equipment, including a freezer and experiment racks.
The deputy administrator for the space station, Mark Uhran, said earlier this week that recent shuttle missions have helped build the science capabilities of the space station. He said, "The big difference between the program we have ahead, and the program we have had in the past is that now for the first time we will have continuously operating laboratories."
One current experiment involves eight mice that are traveling to the station aboard Discovery. The rodents will spend several months in space, in an effort to help scientists understand bone loss among astronauts in microgravity as well as bone disease on Earth.
Lead space station scientist Julie Robinson says the Italian-run test is one of several projects aimed at making medical advances. She said this week, "This will be by far the longest period of time that mice have been maintained in the space station environment in an experimental setting. It is a pretty exciting scientific advance."
After Discovery, NASA plans six more shuttle flights before retiring the fleet next year. After that, Russian and private space programs will be used to ferry supplies to the space station until 2015, when its funding is expected to end.
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