Today, Discovery reached for the stars for the last time in history. The launch almost got cancelled because of a last-minute computer display problem, but the engineers saved the day a couple of seconds before the launch window deadline. Here's the video of the launch.
It was a thrilling moment. I just can't imagine the emotions of the people at NASA, from the Commander to the last NASA employee and contractor. In the end - after many delays - it worked out perfectly: Discovery fired up its engines and reached orbit on mission STS-133 to the International Space Station. There, the crew will add the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, Robonaut and the third of four logistic carriers.
The launch was saddening and exhilarating to the point of tears - at least for a wimpy space nerd like me. This is how we lived it:
Excitement! Discovery is ready, the weather is good, countdown is on, launch is at 4.50pm EST (8.50am AEDT). I will be commenting on what's happening here (and you should be commenting too!)
This is the second to last launch of the Space Shuttle program, and the last launch of Discovery.
2:38 - Astronauts are strapped on their seats. They are preparing to close the Discovery's hatch now. 2:42 - Launch pad crew is getting non-flight items out of the shuttle. 2:43 - I never get tired of this. I don't know why more people don't get amazed by the fact that we are bloody flying to space in the most complex machine ever created by mankind. Hello? 2:47 - Guy number five is putting window covers inside their sleeves, as another flight deck dude is taking them off. 2:50 - The last part to come off the cockpit is out. They are now proceeding to close the hatch. 2:51 - They are taking off the big yellow hose that feeds laughing gas to the astronauts in the cockpit. Or maybe it's just the hose that they use to fill the cockpit with those Styrofoam bits that they use at the UPS store. You know, so the astronauts are comfy. 2:53 - They are cleaning now the hatch with isopropyl alcohol, before closing it. That eliminates any residues so it can seal perfectly. 2:55 - The hatch is now closed. They are looking inside to verify the locking lever is on position and locked. Three people have to verify it visually. Why? Just in case two of them had been drinking isopropyl alcohol cocktails. 2:58 - Flight deck crew is now checking for gas leaks. It looks to me like it was number 3. He looks guilty. 2:59 - All systems nominal. 3:01 - Hatch closed, 100% verified. They are pressurizing the crew module and performing the cabin leak check. They start increasing the pressure little by little. If the astronauts' eyes pop out, something IS REALLY WRONG. Fortunately, that has never happened. 3:06 - Such so we are clear here, folks, I was joking there. This is all actually being filmed in a film lot in the Nevada desert. 3:07 - They are putting a cover on a shelf, to avoid the bottles stored inside to fall off during launch. 3:22 - Pressure check complete now. They are now taking out the probe and putting a cap on. 3:24 - After they unscrew the probe, the other guy has to put the cap back on the shuttle against the air escaping the crew module. 3:28 - I'm writing all this wearing this Apollo 11 astronaut suit, by Space Toys. No, really, I'm not kidding. We have that suit in the office. 3:31 - I'm not wearing space diapers, though. Going commando today. 3:34 - When taking off the masking paper, a bit of thermal tile from around the hatch came out. It's not a big chip. 3:36 - T-20 minutes and holding. 3:40 - They were repairing examining the thermal tile chipping right now. Just some little magic marker and done! 3:45 - T-19 and counting. 3:48 - They are evaluating the damage on the tile now, but all systems are go for now. 3:52 - They now repaired the thermal tile, using a special epoxy. 3:58 - All looks good. ISS crew is getting ready for the shuttle arrival now. 4:01 - "It's a historical time while we wait to watch Discovery's launch for the last time," says the NASA guy. This is really sad. 4:02 - Everything is fine with the thermal tile fix. Crew preparing to retire the white room now. Once they are done, they will leave. 4:16 - Close-up crew has safely retired from the pad. The crew is now alone. 4:26 - The engines exhausts going on, but there's a problem in the central control computer. 4:27 - They are working on it, but there are no mechanical issues at this point. Weather remains go. 4:30 - Range director is still giving the red light. No issues for the vehicle. It's an issue with the computer following the launch. 4:33 - They are having a problem with the computer display of the range safety command system. Typical. I recommend rebooting while holding command + option + P + R. 4:34 - They are counting down to T-5 minutes while they fix this. 4:36 - They are going through systems go/no go. "The range safety officer reporter that the range is "no-go." Teams are working the issue & will soon conduct their poll." 4:40 - Holding count at T-9. The range safety people will have four minutes to solve the problem. 4:41 - T-9 and counting. All systems go except range safety. The launch computer has now taken control of all systems and the space shuttle. 4:45 - We are now holding at T-5. Two minutes of hold time remaining. Auxiliary power activating. 4:46 - Two minutes remaining in the launch window. If the computer guys at the eastern range don't fix their system in that time, it will be a no go. 4:48 - Forty second remaining. RANGE IS GO. They fixed it! 4:48 - T-5minutes and counting! 4:49 - Final test of the flight control surfaces now going on, controlled by the launch computer. 4:50 - Final test of the engines. Watch them go. 4:50 - Computer is now finishing the final pressurization of the tanks. 4:51 - They are retracting the beanie cap now. 4:52 - All systems go, 90 seconds to go for the final launch of Discovery. 4:53 - Discovery is now running on its own power. 4:53 - Discovery computers ahve now the control. 4:53 - Main engine start. 4:54 - LAUNCH. SHUTTLE HAS CLEARED THE TOWER! GODSPEED, DISCOVERY! 4:54 - Everything clear. Shuttle now going supersonic. This is the best show that humans can offer. So sad to see Discovery launch of the last time. So inspiring to know that we can accomplish this feat while we are not screwing each other down here. 4:56 - No problems so far. Solid rocket booster have ejected successfully. 4:57 - "Negative return." That means they are past the altitude that would allow them to return in case of emergency. 4:58 - All systems nominal. 5:00 - Shut down on all engines in about a minute and a half. 7 minutes of flight. Altitude: 66 miles. 5:01 - Engines throttle down to keep the acceleration at 3G. 5:02 - Main engines shut down. Tank separation. The shuttle is now in space.
And that was it, the launch almost got delayed, but the NASA people saved it at the last second. A completely successful launch on the last mission of Space Shuttle Discovery.