NASA on Monday officially cleared the space shuttle Discovery for its final mission, setting the stage for a Nov. 1 blastoff to cap the orbiter's spaceflying career.
Top NASA shuttle officials cleared Discovery for its launch next week during an hours-long meeting at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The approval came after technicians replaced two seals in a leaky fuel line for the twin orbital maneuvering system engines near the shuttle's tail.
"We set the launch date for Nov. 1," NASA's space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier said in a press conference today (Oct. 25) from Kennedy Space Center. "We see a pretty much normal flow from now through Nov. 1."
The shuttle is due to lift off that Monday at 4:40 p.m. EDT (2040 GMT) on a mission to the International Space Station.
It will be the 133rd shuttle mission, as well as the 39th and last flight of Discovery — NASA's oldest orbiter currently in service. The shuttle will be retired after this voyage as the space agency winds down its shuttle program in 2011 after 30 years. [Gallery: Shuttle Discovery's Last Launch Pad Trip]
Fixed up for flight
Shuttle technicians completed repairs on Discovery today. Engineers were able to carry out both seal replacements with Discovery maintaining its vertical configuration on the orbiter's seaside pad.
"It's a huge testament to the team doing the work," said Mike Moses, head of NASA's mission management team for Discovery's flight. "Everybody did an amazingly good job of working through that issue."
After the leaky seals were swapped out, technicians refilled Discovery's four orbital maneuvering and reaction control system tanks with propellant and proceeded with other standard pre-flight maintenance.
Meanwhile, the six-astronaut crew of the upcoming STS-133 mission is expected to enter quarantine, in accordance with normal procedure, this afternoon at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Commander Steve Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott, Alvin Drew and Tim Kopra will fly aboard Discovery on its last mission to the International Space Station. They will be taking critical spare parts to the station, including a storage room and a humanoid robot helper to assist the crew of the orbiting outpost.
The shuttle is currently slated to launch on an 11-day mission. Two spacewalks are planned during the flight. The mission will be NASA's 133rd shuttle flight since the agency's orbiter fleet began flying in April 1981. Discovery has made more spaceflights than any other orbiter in the fleet.
Speaking about Discovery, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, noted the bittersweet nature of the orbiter's final spaceflight.
"I think the word you hear in the halls of KSC and probably every other center, is that it's still kind of hard to believe," Leinbach said. "[The shuttles are a] part of history, part of American culture. It'll be different without flying the shuttle. But, we need to do what we need to do for the agency. We need to get on with the final flight and make it the best flight ever."
The shuttle Endeavour will follow Discovery's flight with one last mission of its own in early 2011. A third, extra shuttle mission has been approved by Congress and President Obama, and is due to be reviewed by congressional appropriators later this year.
NASA will retire the three remaining shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — next year to make way for a new plan aimed at sending astronauts to visit an asteroid and Mars. Discovery is the oldest of NASA's space shuttles and has made more spaceflights than any other orbiter fleet.
President Obama recently signed a major NASA act into law that scraps the space agency's previous moon-oriented goal and paves the way for a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025. A manned mission to Mars is envisioned for some time in the 2030s.
The authorization also calls for a budget of $19 billion for NASA in 2011, adding one extra space shuttle flight before the fleet retires next year, and the extension of the International Space Station through at least 2020.