NASA's Discovery orbiter soared into sunny Florida skies at 10:39 a.m today, 30 months after the Columbia shuttle disintegrated while attempting to return to Earth, grounding the fleet. A successful mission would bode well for the future of the Hubble Space Telescope, but the Discovery flight is also the beginning of the end for the shuttle system itself.
The launch marks the start of a 13-day mission. The spacecraft will dock with the international space station early Thursday morning and the crew--which includes a Japanese astronaut--will work with several new systems designed to check out the status of the shuttle tiles and perform a space walk to install a new gyroscope. In addition, the astronauts will unload much-needed supplies of food and water on the orbiting laboratory, which has depended on Russian launchers since the Columbia accident.
Much is riding on the mission's success. If the flight goes smoothly, NASA Chief Michael Griffin is likely to give the green light for a return to the Hubble Space Telescope, in order to install new instruments and fix its aging hardware. And NASA's foreign partners as well as the White House are watching closely to see how well the shuttle performs what could be the start of its last string of missions before the agency sets its sights on the moon and Mars. While the partners prefer 2 dozen more flights to assemble all the station pieces--including their laboratory modules--the White House is pressing for NASA to reduce the number of missions to about a dozen.
Two NASA teams are now working ways to transport materials to the space station once the shuttle is retired in 2010, as well as figuring out how to assemble the station with as few shuttle flights as possible between now and then. Griffin favors using elements from the shuttle system, and a transportation report--due for release later this month--will push for a shuttle solid rocket booster with an upper stage and a capsule to carry people or cargo. In the next decade, NASA would commence work on a heavy-lift launcher capable of launching a whopping 100 tons, which would essentially replace the shuttle orbiter with a cargo carrier.
For now, observers are optimistic about the consequences of today's successful launch. "Returning to flight will allow the space program to move forward with servicing Hubble, completing the International Space Station, and advance the return of humans to the moon and beyond," said Representative Mark Udall (D–Colorado), ranking minority member of the House science space subcommittee, in a statement.
More on Discovery and its mission