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1/13/2011
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NASA Sets Date For Discovery's Final Mission

The shuttle and its newly reinforced external fuel tank are scheduled to lift for the International Space Station in late February.

After developing a fix for a stubborn problem that has kept space shuttle Discovery on the ground since November, NASA has set a date for the orbiter's final flight into space.

Space Shuttle Discovery
(click image for larger view)
Space Shuttle Discovery

NASA announced Thursday that Discovery is now set to lift off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 24 at 4:50 p.m., if all goes as planned. Shuttle launch schedules, however, are notoriously unreliable, as even the slightest instrument glitch or weather problem can keep the finicky spacecrafts on the launch pad.

NASA engineers have been working to bolster weak spots in Discovery's external fuel tank. The engineers have modified the tank by adding support structures to beams, known as stringers, that surround the tank.

"It's been a long road," said shuttle program manager John Shannon, in a statement. "Additional support structures called radius blocks are being added to 94 stringers, meaning the entire circumference of the external tank will be strengthened by the time all the repairs and modifications are finished," Shannon said.

Discovery's current mission, officially known as STS-133, is scheduled to be its last. When it finally lifts off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center bound for the ISS, it will carry a six-member, all-U.S. crew.

The team is led by Commander Steve Lindsey, 50, of Temple City, Calif., and pilot Eric Boe, 45, of Atlanta. Also on board will be mission specialists Alvin Drew, 47, of Washington, D.C., Tim Kopra, 47, of Austin, Texas, Michael Barratt, 51, of Camas, Wash., and Nicole Stott, 47, of Clearwater, Fla.

The shuttle program will wind down this year as NASA, under a directive from President Obama, turns launches to the International Space Station over to private contractors such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

Obama has said the plan will cut costs while allowing NASA to focus on long-term goals such as a manned mission to Mars, but critics say it could cost jobs and leave the U.S. lagging behind Russia and China in the space race.

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