27July 2005--The space shuttle Discovery blasted off its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida the morning of 26 July, finally returning the United States' shuttle fleet to flight. The launch follows a two-and-a-half-year grounding of the fleet in the wake of the Columbia disaster.
It had not been a smooth road to the liftoff. Initial concern over the shuttle's readiness pushed the launch from May to July, and a malfunctioning fuel level sensoron 13 July cost NASA another two-week delay.
The successful launch of the Discovery, with its international crew of seven, was critical to the United States' ambitions in space. Even though NASA has been at pains to recast the shuttle as an experimental vehicle conducting test flights, it needs the remaining shuttles--Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor--as workhorses in the assembly and supply of the International Space Station. John Elbon, vice president and program manager of the ISS for Boeing Co., in Seattle, NASA's prime contractor for the station, explains, "We've had our fingers in the dyke, keeping the station patched together, and now we'll be able to make forward progress again."
As well as demonstrating a number of techniques designed to prove the shuttle can fly safely, Discovery will be transporting valuable parts and supplies to the station, including about 225 kilograms of food and personal items for the astronauts currently onboard the ISS. While she couldn't comment on the specific items being delivered to the two-man station crew, Kimberley Paige, a senior Boeing manager in charge of the payloads that are sent to and from the station, says that "in the past, there have been things like little puzzle mazes, Rubik's cubed, a guitar, family photos."
But almost as important as delivering cargo to the ISS, Discovery will haul things away. Some garbage produced on the station can be stuffed into the automated Progress cargo ships that are regularly sent to the station; these ships burn up in the atmosphere after they leave. But that makes them unsuitable for items being used in experiments in space that must be returned to Earth. This time Discovery is carrying in its cargo bay an Italian-built cargo pod, dubbed Raphello. The spacecraft is taking about 1000 kg of material up to the station and will bring back almost 2500 kg.
Even so, the return to flight marks the beginning of the end for the space shuttle. NASA's top management is anxious to replace the aging shuttle fleet with a proposed Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will form the cornerstone of the agency's plan to return to the Moon. The first manned flights of the CEV are planned for 2014, and NASA hopes to retire the shuttle by 2010.