Space Shuttle Discovery to Launch Early Tuesday
The space shuttle Discovery sits poised for an Aug. 25, 2009 launch atop Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/Troy Cryder

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The space shuttle Discovery is poised to blast off early Tuesday in what promises to be a stunning nighttime launch into the dark Florida sky.

Discovery and a crew of seven astronauts are due to lift off from a seaside pad here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center at 1:36 a.m. EDT (0536 GMT) and begin a 13-day construction flight to the International Space Station.

?We have been studying and training hard for about a year now and we are ready to accomplish this mission,? said Discovery commander Rick Sturckow.

Discovery has an 80 percent chance of good weather at launch time early Tuesday, but only if Mother Nature cooperates later this afternoon when NASA fuels the shuttle?s external tank. The moon should set late Monday night, giving Discovery a completely dark sky to launch into, mission managers said.

Shuttle workers plan to begin loading Discovery?s 15-story external tank with the more than 526,000 of super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant at about 4:11 p.m. EDT (1911 GMT). There is a chance that lightning within 5 miles (8 km) of the shuttle?s Pad 39A launch site could stall the fueling operation, and even the launch if the delay runs too long.

?Overall, the weather is looking good for launch, we've just got to get there,? said NASA shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters. ?So the tanking weather is what we'll be watching very closely.?

NASA launch director Pete Nickolenko said his team could delay fueling Discovery?s tank by about three hours and still make the Tuesday morning launch window. Lightning has been a thorn in NASA?s side in recent months. A lightning strike in July forced NASA to delay the liftoff of shuttle Endeavour in order make sure the spacecraft was in good health.

Ready to fly

Sturckow leads a six-man, one-woman crew that includes shuttle pilot Kevin Ford and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Jose Hernandez, Daniel Olivas, Nicole Stott and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, who represents the European Space Agency. Ford, Hernandez and Stott are making their first spaceflight.

They plan to deliver a cargo pod packed with packed with about 15,200 pounds (6,894 kg) of new science equipment, fresh supplies and a treadmill named after comedian Stephen Colbert.

Colbert tried to have NASA name a new room for the space station after him by urging fans to write his name in during an online poll by the space agency earlier this year. NASA, ultimately chose the name ?Tranquility? - after the Apollo 11 moon landing site - for the room, but offered Colbert the treadmill as a consolation prize.

?We?re just excited to haul it up there,? Sturckow said. ?This has been a long time in the construction phase and for awhile it was questionable if it would even make our mission.?

NASA invited Colbert to watch the Discovery's launch, but he was unable attend. Instead, NASA will broadcast a statement from Colbert later tonight on NASA TV after fueling Discovery.

Discovery is also carrying new science experiment racks to boost fluids and materials research aboard inside the station. A new ammonia coolant tank, which weighs as much as a small car, will be installed at the station during the mission?s three spacewalks.

Unlike her crewmates, Stott is not planning on returning to Earth with Discovery after its mission is completed. She will stay behind and replace NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who has lived aboard the station since mid-July and will come home on Discovery.

?I?m really looking forward to that first view,? Stott said in a recent briefing. ?I expect that it won?t get any less impressive every time you do it.?

Discovery?s flight will mark NASA?s fourth shuttle launch this year and the second to blast off at night in 2009.

?In this business there are few sights as beautiful as a nighttime launch,? said NASA test director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson in a recent briefing. ?And I expect this to be a spectacular sight as Discovery roars to life early Tuesday morning and lights up the night sky.?

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SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Discovery's STS-128 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV. Live coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. EDT.