August 29, 2009 / 5:10 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Space shuttle Discovery launched after days of delays

* Shuttle aims for Sunday docking at space station

* Discovery’s mission scheduled for 13 days

* Shuttle carrying equipment, supplies for station (Adds quote, details, background)

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug 29 (Reuters) - Space shuttle Discovery rocketed into orbit early on Saturday, carrying lab equipment, supplies, spare parts, genetically altered mice and a new crewmember to the International Space Station.

The shuttle soared off its seaside launch pad at 11:59 p.m. on Friday (0359 GMT on Saturday), ending days of launch delays with a brilliant burst of flames and a thundering roar that shattered the night’s calm and temporarily turned the dark Florida sky as bright as day.

The shuttle reached Earth’s orbit a few minutes after midnight. Docking at the space station is expected on Sunday night.

Bad weather and a suspect fuel valve delayed Discovery’s start on NASA’s 128th shuttle mission, a 13-day voyage to help get the station ready for full-time science operations. The weather toyed with NASA again on Friday, but the sky cleared long enough for NASA to get Discovery off the launch pad.

“This time, Mother Nature is cooperating. ... We wish you and your team good luck and Godspeed,” launch director Pete Nickolenko radioed to Discovery commander Rick Sturckow shortly before liftoff.

Joining Sturckow, 48, aboard Discovery were Kevin Ford, 49, Jose Hernandez, 47, Christer Fuglesang, 52, Pat Forrester, 52, Danny Olivas, 44, and Nicole Stott, 46.

Stott will be staying behind on the station to take over the flight engineer’s job now held by NASA astronaut Tim Kopra. She is the last space station crewmember to catch a ride to the station on the shuttle, which is being retired after six more missions.

NASA is paying Russia about $50 million per seat to ferry future crewmembers to the station aboard Soyuz capsules. The agency also is considering proposals from U.S. commercial firms interested in providing launch services for its astronauts.

The station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations, is nearing completion after more than a decade of construction.

TREADMILL NAMED FOR STEPHEN COLBERT

Discovery is toting more than 7 tonnes of laboratory equipment, food, supplies, spare parts and science experiments, including genetically altered mice that will live aboard the station for a bone-loss study that could lead to new treatments for osteoporosis.

Discovery also is delivering a second treadmill to the outpost, named after Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert, who latched onto a NASA public relations campaign to name the station’s final connecting hub.

With the support of his fans, Colbert won the contest, but NASA decided to name the new room Tranquility.

COLBERT — an acronym for Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill — was offered as a consolation prize.

With Discovery’s flight, NASA hopes to begin shifting the focus of the space station from assembly to research. Aboard Discovery are two refrigerator-sized racks for fluid physics and materials science experiments and a sub-zero freezer to store science samples.

The mission coincides with a top-level review of NASA’s human space program by the Obama administration. A study panel headed by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine is due to deliver its report on Monday.

Among the options under consideration is extending the life of the space station beyond Sept. 30, 2015, when funding currently is projected to end. NASA spends about half of its $18 billion annual budget on human space programs, including about $2.5 billion a year to run the station.

The agency has been planning to develop a new launch system and capsules that could return astronauts to the moon. Augustine’s committee determined the moon program was underfunded by about $3 billion a year. (Editing by Jim Loney and Peter Cooney)

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