A crew of six veteran astronauts and one rookie robot blasted off from Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery as it took off on its final mission. Record crowds were on hand at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to witness Discovery's final flight, which lowered the curtain on the space shuttle era.
Discovery is the most traveled spacecraft in history, beaming back spectacular imagery from the final frontier. The crew will rendez-vous with the International Space Station on its 11-day mission.
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Steve Lindsay, the commander of the Discovery mission, said he is "always struck" by how "powerful and beautiful" space is. "It is just overwhelming, that is the way it feels to me."
When Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a shuttle, it was aboard Discovery. And from Discovery, Dr. Bernard Harris became the first African-American to walk in space.
At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, flight director Richard Jones looked back on the shuttle's career. It was a poignant time for the space agency -- the shuttle program was ending after 30 years. Jones said he was proud to have been part of Discovery's last flight.
"What I will look back on is that this mission was just one of many, many accomplishments, and it was part of the shuttle era," Jones said.
When Discovery reaches the International Space Station, it will add another module for storage and experiments, an exterior experiment platform and a robot -- the first humanoid robot in space -- to work inside the space station. Two spacewalks are scheduled for maintenance work.
It is the first space flight for the $2 million Robonaut, known as R2, which is tasked with showing how dexterous robots behave in space. The robot is made of aluminum, weighs 330 pounds and is 3 feet 4 inches tall. To document its work, R2 will be tweeting @AstroRobonaut.
When Discovery docks at the space station, the combined weight of the two spacecraft will equal 1 million points -- a space first.
One astronaut, though, did not make the historic trip: Tim Kopra was bumped from the mission a month ago after he broke his hip in a bicycle accident. Kopra, who was the lead spacewalker, will be watching closely from Mission Control. He has a six-month tour of duty on the space station.
Originally scheduled for launch Nov. 1, Discovery had been repeatedly delayed because of cracks in structural ribs, or stringers, in the ship's external tank. NASA managers believe their engineering analysis has finally revealed the root cause of the cracks, and a relatively straightforward modification cleared the way for today's launch.
When Discovery lands after this final mission, it will have flown 143 million miles. Astronaut Nicole Stott said she can't help feeling sentimental about this space shuttle.
"It is kind of cool that the vehicle named Discovery has this kind of history to it, the most flights," she said. "I think it really sums up what the space program is all about."
This mission, designated STS 133, is the 133rd space shuttle mission and the 35th flight of the space shuttle. Discovery's list of achievements include delivering the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and bringing shuttle flights back to life after the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
This will be Discovery's 39th flight. It is set to become the first of the three surviving space shuttles that will be retired this year and sent to a museum. STS 134, the flight that will be commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly, will be NASA's last mission unless Congress funds an additional flight.