Shuttle Discovery hauled to launch pad for final flight

The shuttle Discovery is hauled to its oceanside launch pad for work to ready the ship for launch November 1 on its final flight.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
4 min read

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a mobile launch platform carried by an Apollo-era crawler transporter, was hauled to the launch pad last night for work to ready the ship for blastoff November 1 on its 39th and final flight.

With launch pad 39A visible in the distance, the shuttle Discovery departs the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building for its final trip to the firing stand. Launch is targeted for November 1. William Harwood/CBS News

The 3.2-mile trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to launch complex 39A began at 7:23 p.m. EDT and was completed at 1:49 a.m. Tuesday when the mobile launch platform was reported "hard down" on its support pedestals at the oceanside pad. With good weather expected, engineers delayed rolling a protective gantry around the vehicle to give Kennedy Space Center workers a chance to visit the pad and enjoy an unobstructed view of NASA's most experienced orbiter.

On Saturday, the Rotating Service Structure, or RSS, will be retracted again for "family day" at the Florida spaceport, when workers will be allowed to bring their families out for a launch pad drive-by and tours of other shuttle facilities.

"The first thing we're going to do is get all the systems connected up so we can start validating the systems, the boosters, the tank and the orbiter, make sure we have communications back to the firing room and so forth," said Stephanie Stilson, the engineer in charge of Discovery's ground processing.

"A little bit different for us is we're going to leave the RSS retracted all day (Tuesday) and let employees come out and take pictures, which is something new we have not done before. So that's a great opportunity for the workforce. After we do our picture taking, we'll roll the RSS back to the mate position and get busy doing all the systems checkout and testing. Family day, Saturday, we're going to retract it back. The next big event is the payload coming out on the seventh (of October)."

Shuttle Discovery, mounted atop launch pad 39A. William Harwood/CBS News

Discovery's crew--commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott, and spacewalkers Timothy Kopra and Al Drew--plans to strap in for a dress-rehearsal countdown October 15. An executive-level flight readiness review to assess the shuttle's processing and to set an official launch date is scheduled to begin October 19.

As of this writing, launch is targeted for 4:40 p.m. EDT on November 1. Docking with the International Space Station is expected November 3, with spacewalks on tap November 5 and 7. Undocking is expected around 5:40 a.m. EST on November 10, with landing back at the Kennedy Space Center around 10:39 a.m. on November 12.

NASA plans to follow Discovery's mission with the launch of shuttle Endeavour February 26 on a mission to deliver a $2 billion particle physics experiment to the space station, along with additional supplies and equipment. Program managers are hoping NASA's 2011 budget will include funding for a final flight by the shuttle Atlantis next June. The Senate version of the budget includes funding for the mission but the House version would require NASA to pay for it.

Either way, shuttle mission STS-133 will be the final flight for Discovery, NASA's third shuttle, which first took off in August 1984.

"I try not to think about it being the end for Discovery, but I do feel a bit sad, mainly because of the friends I've made on the team and the fact that in the future a lot of those friends won't still be working with me directly," Stilson told reporters late yesterday.

Despite the prospect of looming layoffs at the Florida spaceport, Stilson said she has no concerns about the quality of the processing team's work.

"I was concerned about that with October (layoffs) coming up and with the way things are with the workforce," she said. "But I've really just seen people stay very focused and very upbeat...Some folks have left, they've taken other opportunities, folks I wish could have stayed. But the folks behind them are stepping up and filling in the gaps and working well together. I've been very impressed by the contractor workforce as to the way they've handled it."

She said shuttle program managers are "keeping a very close eye" on flight safety, telling the team "that if at any point in time anybody feels that we're not in a good place, we will stop and redirect and start over if we need to."

"But right now I have no fears of what we've done so far with the team we have now, and I have no concerns about what we'll do in the future," she said. "If we get to a point where something is not going the way it should, we know to stop and take care of it."