by Dr. Ken Kremer
In a truly dramatic finale to her very last launch, Space Shuttle Discovery blasted off to space at 4:53 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 24, with just two seconds to spare after an unexpected last minute computer glitch with Air Force tracking computers threatened to delay the liftoff yet again despite otherwise perfect launch conditions.
Air Force officials suddenly reported a “NO GO” for launch just 20 minutes before the planned liftoff at 4:50 PM. Critical range safety computers that track the shuttle after launch and ensure the safety of the public abruptly malfunctioned, forcing the Air Force to scramble for a quick solution to fix the mysterious problems.
Meanwhile NASA’s Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach ordered the insertion of an unplanned hold at T minus 5 minutes into the countdown to try and buy some time.
With the clock ticking down relentlessly to the very end of the narrow 10 minute launch window and no word of a rapid resolution from the Air Force, it seemed as though everyone’s hopes would be dashed and the launch would again be scrubbed. The shuttle cannot launch without a fully functional range safety tracking system and approval from the Air Force.
All systems on board Discovery, the payloads and the weather had at last coalesced perfectly to support a blast off following numerous technical delays over the past three and one half months.
Large crowds of excited spectators had gathered along the beaches, parks and roadways of Florida’s Space Coast in expectation of a fabulous viewing experience for this historic final launch of Discovery. The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) alone was packed with more than 40,000 onlookers from all across the globe. The crowds have been increasing in size as the remaining shuttle launches dwindle to a few.
It was a nail biter to the last second as the Air Force worked on the computer issues in the few minutes remaining and no information was forthcoming.
Finally, the Shuttle integration manager Mike Moses received a verbal OK from Air Force officials that the computer problems were fixed and NASA could resume the countdown just seconds before the launch window would have expired.
In all the history of the Space Shuttle program, this type of problem with the Air Force range safety system had never occurred so close to the final moments of a shuttle launch.
“Well, it was kind of an exciting last few minutes of this countdown,” Leinbach told reporters at the post launch news briefing.
“Several of us have been around for many, many countdowns and this was one for the record books. … This was Discovery’s last (launch), a great way to go out. She gave us a little bit of a fit today, but it’s a great way to get [Shuttle Commander] Steve Lindsey and his crew on orbit.”
“I’m very, very proud of my launch team and all the rest of the people who worked so hard on Discovery.”
After the months long wait, Discovery’s final liftoff was absolutely spectacular. The solid rocket boosters and shuttle main engines ignited and thrust Discovery on a thunderous ascent off the launch pad into a gorgeous clear blue sky.
The near deafening sounds were even louder than usual. The blazing orange flames from the rocket engines were astonishingly bright like a giant blow torch burning right through the heavens.
The all veteran astronaut crew of five men and one woman aboard Discovery achieved orbit after the eight and one half minute climb to space on the orbiters 39th mission. Also aboard was the R2 Robonaut which is the first humanoid robot in space. R2 will become an official member of the crew.
The primary goal of the STS-133 mission is to deliver the “Leonardo” Permanent Multipurpose Module to the ISS. Leonardo will be attached to the ISS as a new and permanent habitable module that will provide extra storage and living space for the six person ISS crew.
Discovery is set to dock at the ISS at 2:16 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26. The mission’s two spacewalks will focus on outfitting the station and storing spare components outside the complex. The 11 day flight is due to conclude with a landing back at KSC on Monday, March 7.
Read my STS-133 articles online for Universe Today, The Planetary Society and Sidereal Times:
Astronomy Outreach by Ken Kremer
Rittenhouse Astronomical Society (RAS) at the Franklin Institute: Philadelphia, PA, Apr 13, Wed, 7 PM. “Opportunity Mars Rover Update”, “ NASA Flybys of Comets Hartley 2 & Temple 1” Website: http://www.rittenhouseastronomicalsociety.org
Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton: Princeton, NJ, May 10 8 PM “Whats Beyond for NASA: Shuttle, Station, Orion, SpaceX & Robots”. Website: http://www.princetonastronomy.org/
International Astronomy Day at the Franklin Institute: Philadelphia, PA, May 7, Sat, “The Search for Life on Mars”