KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — With seconds to spare after a last-minute glitch, the repaired shuttle Discovery, grounded since November because of vexing fuel tank cracks, rocketed into orbit Thursday on its 39th and final flight, setting off for the International Space Station to deliver supplies, equipment and a final American storage module.
The countdown proceeded smoothly into its final hour, but trouble with an Air Force tracking system computer threw the outcome into doubt. With the countdown holding at the five-minute mark, the Air Force reported a successful repair. The countdown resumed, and Discovery blasted off at 4:53:24 p.m. Eastern time — three seconds before the end of the day’s launch window.
Discovery put on a spectacular show for area residents and tourists, who crowded nearby roads and beaches to witness the shuttle’s final climb to space.
Flight controllers were paying close attention to the view from a camera mounted on the side of the shuttle’s external tank, on the lookout for any signs of foam insulation falling away that could pose a threat to the ship’s fragile heat shield.
Extensive foam work was done as part of repairs to fix cracks in the external tank that forced NASA to ground the shuttle after the scrubbing of a planned Nov. 5 launch.
During the climb Thursday, several large pieces of debris could be seen falling from the tank, some striking the shuttle’s heat shield, but the shedding appeared to occur well after the shuttle was out of the dense lower atmosphere, where debris impacts can cause the most damage.
No obvious impact damage could be seen in the downlink television views, but a detailed analysis will be carried out over the next few days.
In the meantime, the shuttle is on track for a docking with the International Space Station around 2:16 p.m. Saturday.
“Discovery’s a great ship,” Michael Leinbach, the launch director, told reporters Wednesday. “This is her 39th mission; we’d have quite a few left in her had the program been extended.”
On board Discovery are five men and one woman: Strapped into seats on the upper flight deck are the commander, Steven W. Lindsey; Col. Eric A. Boe of the Air Force, the pilot; Capt. Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. of the Air Force; and Nicole P. Stott, the flight engineer. On the ship’s lower deck are Michael R. Barratt, a physician-astronaut, and Capt. Stephen G. Bowen ’93 of the Navy.
Bowen is a late addition. A veteran of five spacewalks, he was called in to replace the mission’s original lead spacewalker, Col. Timothy L. Kopra of the Army, who was injured in a bicycle mishap last month.