Shuttle Discovery, 7 astronauts have predawn liftoff
Launch helps set record for most women in space
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Discovery and seven astronauts headed for a rendezvous with the International Space Station after a predawn liftoff yesterday on one of the last missions for NASA’s shuttle program.
The launch — the last one scheduled in darkness for NASA’s fading shuttle program — helped set a record for the most women in space at the same time. Three women are aboard Discovery, and another is at the space station, making for an unprecedented foursome. The shuttle should arrive at the orbiting outpost tomorrow.
Discovery’s main antenna failed after takeoff and could impact the radar needed for the rendezvous. NASA officials said there were other tools to work around the situation.
The nearly two-week mission will stock the space station with supplies and experiments.
In a rare treat, the space station passed over the launch site 15 minutes before Discovery blasted off and was easily visible, resembling a big, brilliant star in the clear morning sky with the moon as a backdrop. There was a chorus of “ooooh’’ from spectators. By launch time, the outpost had traveled almost all the way across the Atlantic.
“It’s time for you to rise to orbit. Good luck and godspeed,’’ launch director Pete Nickolenko told the astronauts before liftoff.
Discovery could be seen with the naked eye for seven minutes as it shot upward, adding to the show. And almost as an encore, the exhaust plumes fanned out in spirals across the sky, turning pale shades of rose, peach, and gold in the glinting sunlight.
The six space station residents gathered around the dinner table to watch the launch on a laptop computer. “We are absolutely delighted to have our friendly comrades joining us here in a couple of days,’’ said spaceman Timothy Creamer.
Japan celebrated its own space feat with Discovery’s liftoff. Two of its astronauts were circling Earth at the same time, one on the shuttle and the other on the station. More than 300 Japanese journalists and space program officials crowded the launch site. The roads leading to the Kennedy Space Center also were jammed with Easter vacationers and spring breakers eager to see one of the few remaining shuttle flights.
NASA officials noted three small pieces of insulating foam flying off Discovery’s fuel tank, too late in the flight to pose a safety concern.
The astronauts will survey their ship Tuesday.
If the shuttle’s antenna isn’t working by then, they will be forced to wait until they get to the space station on Wednesday to transmit the inspection results to Mission Control.
In the meantime, the astronauts will have to watch the survey carefully from television monitors inside the shuttle to make sure there are no problems with the vehicle’s protective thermal tiles. Normally, the video images would be sent in real time to engineers in Houston.
Only three shuttle missions remain after this one. NASA intends to retire its fleet by the end of September, but is unsure what will follow for human spaceflight.