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US Space Shuttle Discovery Launched on Final Flight

VOA News February 24, 2011

The U.S. space shuttle Discovery has thundered into orbit on its final flight to carry supplies to the International Space Station.

NASA's oldest shuttle in a fleet of three space vehicles was launched Thursday from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Discovery blasted off three minutes later than scheduled, after a problem with an Air Force tracking computer emerged. The issue was resolved and Discovery left for space with just a few seconds left in the launch window.

NASA also says foam fell off the shuttle after liftoff, and that an in-flight inspection will be conducted before Discovery re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

During the 11-day mission, the crew of five men and one woman will deliver cargo to the orbiting outpost, including a storage module and a humanoid robot. Two spacewalks and science experiments are planned. The shuttle is expected to dock with the space station on Saturday.

First launched in 1984, Discovery has logged nearly 230 million kilometers, more than any other reusable spacecraft. This is the 39th flight for Discovery. Prior to Thursday's flight, the crew posed for a group picture and waved to crowds of onlookers gathered at the space center.

Discovery's mission was originally scheduled for late last year, but was postponed because of a hydrogen leak and cracks in the external fuel tank.

Only two shuttle flights remain after Discovery's mission. Endeavour and Atlantis will be retired later this year.

NASA lost two others shuttles in disasters over the past 25 years.

In January 1986, the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board, including Christa McAuliffe. She was the first teacher being sent into space as part of a NASA program.

In February 2003, seven astronauts were killed when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.

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