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11/2/2010
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Shuttle Discovery Is 'Go' For Final Launch

Preparations underway as NASA's oldest orbiter set to take to the skies one last time.

NASA technicians inspected Discovery's external fuel lines early Tuesday as preparation's continued for the spacecraft's final launch. Discovery, the oldest craft in NASA's shuttle fleet, is expected to make its last flight Wednesday afternoon if weather conditions hold.

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

Later this afternoon and this evening, NASA crews plan to activate Discovery's onboard and ground communications systems and move the rotating service structure away from the launch pad.

If it all goes as planned, Discovery will lift off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 3:52 p.m. EDT on Wednesday to begin an 11-day mission—its last--to the International Space Station.

The shuttle was originally scheduled to launch Monday, but space agency officials scrubbed the plan after detecting a helium leak. Discovery's current launch window, the period during which the spacecraft is in position to dock with the ISS, runs through Sunday.

Discovery entered service in 1984, and is one of three remaining shuttles of the six originally built. Atlantis and Endeavour remain in service, while Challenger and Columbia were lost in accidents that claimed the lives of their crewmembers. The first shuttle, Enterprise, was a test vehicle that was retired shortly after its initial series of suborbital flights in 1977.

The shuttle program is expected to end in February when Endeavour takes to the skies for the final time. President Obama earlier this year ordered NASA to turn over low-orbit flights to private contractors and focus more on deep space missions and research. Critics of the plan claim it will cost jobs along Florida's Spacecoast and in other states that support the shuttle program. They also say it could leave the U.S. lagging behind Russia and China in the space race.

Discovery will carry a six-member, all-U.S. crew on its final voyage, officially known as STS-133. 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.

Upon achieving orbit, Discovery will execute a series of positioning maneuvers prior to docking with the ISS, where the crew will drop off various parts and supplies. Mission specialists Drew and Kopra will also undertake a pair of six-hour spacewalks during the mission. Stott, meanwhile, plans to broadcast regular mission updates through her Twitter account, @Astro_Nicole.

NASA, through its Web site, is also giving the public the chance to help select the songs that will serve as wakeup calls for the Discovery crew during their mission.

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