NASA Moves Space Shuttle Discovery to Launch Pad
Space shuttle Discovery is seen after completing its 3.4 mile trip from Kennedy's Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A on March 3, 2010 in preparation for an April 5 launch on NASA's STS-131 mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

NASA hauled the space shuttle Discovery out to its seaside launch pad in Florida early Wednesday to prepare for a planned April 5 blastoff.

The massive move set Discovery up for its second to last mission ever as NASA prepares to retire its space shuttle fleet later this year. Discovery is due to launch April 5 at 6:21 a.m. EDT (1021 GMT) to deliver new supplies and equipment to the International Space Station.

NASA began hauling the shuttle Discovery to the seaside Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before midnight. The trip took more than six hours.

??It?s a great time to be in Florida,? Discovery commander Alan Poindexter told reporters Monday after arriving at the spaceport. ?We?ve been training really hard and are just so proud of the folks down here getting [Discovery] ready for flight.?

Poindexter and the rest of Discovery?s seven-astronaut crew are spending the week at the Kennedy Space Center for final training sessions with the shuttle and its cargo.

A crew of around 30 technicians accompanied Discovery?s move to the launch pad, which used NASA?s massive Apollo-era crawler carrier vehicle built to move the combined 12 million-pound (5.4 million-kg) load of itself and a space.

But NASA also invited more than 200 shuttle workers and their families to watch Discovery make its way to the launch pad. The visitors were given passes to bring their families and watch the spaceship they?ve worked on for years make its penultimate trip to the launch pad, NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told SPACE.com.

?It?s a special employee event,? Beutel said. ?They?re letting employees and their families, folks who worked on the shuttle their entire lives, get a chance to see a rollout.?

NASA plans to retire its three aging space shuttles in September after the final mission ? also aboard Discovery ? returns to Earth from the space station.

There are four shuttle flights left, including Discovery?s upcoming STS-131 mission. NASA has flown 130 shuttle missions since the first flight in 1981. The most recent mission was aboard Endeavour, which returned from the space station on Feb. 21 after delivering a new room and stunning viewport that allows astronauts on the station to see Earth from space like never before.

NASA initially planned to move Discovery to its launch pad on Tuesday, but the threat of rain and lightning forced a one-day delay.

Shuttle technicians currently have about a week of cushion time in their schedule to prepare Discovery for flight, so the delayed trek to the launch pad should not affect plans for the shuttle?s April 5 blastoff, Beutel said.

The shuttle?s STS-131 was also previously scheduled to launch on March 18, but cold weather in Florida kept Discovery inside its hangar for longer than expected.

That delay forced NASA to wait until warmer weather arrived before moving the shuttle to the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building to be attached to its 15-story external tank and twin solid rocket boosters.

As a result, the space agency pushed back Discovery?s launch to April 5 due to the weather and in order to avoid a space traffic jam at the space station, which will see a crew change at the end of March and early April.

Discovery is slated to fly a 13-day mission to the space station to deliver a cargo module filled with tons of science equipment and other supplies for the orbiting laboratory. Three spacewalks are planned for the mission to upgrade and maintain the station?s systems.

Poindexter and his crew will speak with reporters about their mission on Thursday and then spend Friday staging a dress rehearsal of launch day, capping it with an emergency escape drill.

The training session is a standard one for every mission and is called the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test.

?We?re really looking forward to our dress rehearsal for launch,? Poindexter said.

Meanwhile, NASA is also gearing up for a launch of a different kind this week.

An unmanned Delta 4 rocket is due to launch the new GOES-P weather satellite for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The new satellite storm is designed to track storm development and weather conditions on Earth.

Launch of GOES-P was initially slated to Tuesday, but has been delayed due to weather and technical concerns. Beutel said both issues have been resolved, giving GOES-P a good chance to fly Thursday.

?The weather looks very good for a Thursday launch,? he said.