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Discovery space shuttle poised for final launch

— Photo: AP

SETTING HISTORY:Space shuttle Discovery stands ready for launch at Pad 39A after the rotating service structure was moved back to expose the orbiter at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday.

Florida: Discovery, NASA's oldest and most journeyed space shuttle, was poised for launch on Thursday on its final mission, wrapping up a near three-decade legacy of orbital travel.

When the storied spacecraft lifts off at 4:50 p.m. (21:50 GMT), it will mark the beginning of the end of the United States' space shuttle programme, with Discovery, first of the remaining three shuttles, headed for retirement this year.

The closure of the shuttle programme will leave a gaping hole in the American space mission, forcing astronauts to rely on the Russian Soyuz space capsule for transport to the orbiting International Space Station.

But concerns for the future were brushed aside as excitement mounted for Discovery's mission, with technical checks moving along smoothly, with no hint of the fuel tank woes that delayed the launch in November.

Employees of the Kennedy Space Center here drove into the complex at a steady clip as the sun rose on Thursday, and a layer of low-lying fog was expected to burn off by mid-morning with the weather forecast 90 per cent favourable for launch. Cracks on Discovery's external fuel tank emerged just before the launch, over three months ago, causing engineers to puzzle for many weeks over the cause and how to fix it.

In January, they agreed that installing small metal strips — called radius blocks — on the 6.7-meter-long (22-foot) U-shaped aluminium brackets would reinforce their strength.

The six-member crew are Commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, Steve Bowen and Nicole Stott.

Astronaut Tim Kopra was scratched from the crew list after a bicycle accident in January. He was replaced by Mr. Bowen.

Humanoid robot

The shuttle will bring the first humanoid robot to the ISS. The Robonaut 2, or R2, is a joint project of General Motors and NASA and will stay behind when Discovery leaves as a permanent resident of the space station.

Discovery first flew in 1984. Final flights for the other two in the fleet — Atlantis and Endeavour — are scheduled for later this year.

Doubts on funding

Endeavour is set for its final take-off on April 19 and the last mission for Atlantis is scheduled for June 28, though the funding for Atlantis remains in question.

There were initially five space shuttles in the fleet — Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off in 1986 and Columbia disintegrated on its way back to the earth in 2003. — AFP

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