Astronaut Pam Melroy was at the controls today as the shuttle Discovery launched on the most-challenging mission yet to the International Space Station.
She will arrive on Thursday at the space station which is also, for the first time, currently under the command of a woman, Nasa’s Peggy Whitson. It is the first time that two simultaneous space missions have both been commanded by women.
The craft raced into a partly cloudy sky – the second shuttle in a row to launch on the scheduled date and time. It will spend 14 days in orbit.
With Pam are rookie pilot George Zamka, flight engineer Stephanie Wilson, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, plus Scott Parazynski, Doug Wheelock, and Dan Tani.
During their two-week mission the crew will carry out several tough tasks that will involve five spacewalks by Parazynski, Wheelock and Tani.
First they must attach a vital new module called Harmony, which is nearly 24 ft long and 15 ft wide, to the cosmic construction site. This latest part of the space station jigsaw is like a corridor with six ports – doorways ready for further “rooms” to be added. In December, the first of these, a European-built module called Columbus, will be added by the next shuttle crew. The additions will make the ISS even more brilliant in the night sky.
The Discovery crew also need to disconnect and a giant set of solar panels, 240 ft long, and then move them to the other end of the orbiting outpost. It is a highly complex procedure which will involve the power unit being passed between the robotic arms of both the shuttle and the station.
The astronauts’ fifth spacewalk will be to test repairing the shuttle’s heat shield in space. Previous shuttle flights have been struck by foam insulation falling from the fuel tanks.
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