Last Crew of Space Shuttle Discovery Practices Launch Escape
In preparation for liftoff of space shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission, the six-member crew flew to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to conduct the prelaunch training and countdown dress rehearsal, officially known as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test.
Credit: NASA TV

The last crew of the space shuttle Discovery staged a full dress rehearsal today (Oct. 15) for the spacecraft's final voyage, capping the launch practice with an emergency escape drill NASA hopes never to use.

The six astronauts slated to launch on Discovery's final mission Nov. 1 arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Fla., earlier this week to participate in training exercises, known as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test. ?

Discovery is set to blast off to the International Space Station in just over two weeks for an 11-day construction flight. [Photos: Discovery's Launch Pad Trip]

"The vehicle is looking great, all of our activities are going great," shuttle commander Steve Lindsey told reporters yesterday (Oct. 14) from the Launch Pad 39A at KSC. "We are basically trained and ready to fly. Just a few more weeks of activities we have to go through, and then we'll hopefully be back here for an on-time launch on Nov. 1."

Launch escape drills

Lindsey 's crew includes pilot Eric Boe, and mission specialists Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott, Alvin Drew and Tim Kopra. They flew to KSC from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to participate in various simulated countdown activities, including equipment familiarization and emergency escape training.

While at KSC, the astronauts checked the fit of their orange spacesuits, reviewed firefighting methods, familiarized themselves with the flight hardware, and examined the cargo that will be hauled to the space station in Discovery's payload bay.

The crewmembers also received training on how to escape into the launch pad's slidewire baskets and armored M-113 personnel carriers in the event of an emergency pad escape.

The exercises are intended to familiarize the crew with the various safety equipment and procedures that, if necessary, may need to be put into action on the day of launch.

On its final spaceflight, space shuttle Discovery will take critical spare parts to the station, including a storage room and a humanoid robot helper to assist the crew of the orbiting outpost.

Shuttle era's end looms

But, even with the excitement surrounding the upcoming mission, Lindsey calls the preparations for Discovery's final flight a bittersweet experience.

"For me personally, this will be my third flight on Discovery," Lindsey said. "Discovery is a workhorse ? fleet leader in number of flights. It's a great machine, a great vehicle. As far as the last flight, it's a privilege for us to be able to fly it on the last flight. It's a real tribute to the folks here and at the other manned spacecraft centers for all they've done to keep these vehicles flying and being able to do all the things they do."

NASA will retire the three remaining shuttles in its fleet ? Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour ? next year to make way for a new plan aimed at sending astronauts to visit an asteroid and Mars. Discovery is the oldest of NASA's space shuttles.

On Monday (Oct. 11), President Barack Obama signed a major NASA act that turns his vision for U.S. space exploration into law. The NASA authorization act scraps the space agency's previous moon-oriented goal and paves the way for a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025. A manned mission to Mars is envisioned for some time in the 2030s.

The bill also calls for a budget of $19 billion for NASA in 2011, adding one extra space shuttle flight before the fleet retires next year, and the extension of the International Space Station through at least 2020.

Still, the legacy of Discovery will be celebrated by the STS-133 crew during their upcoming mission, and after the orbiters are retired, the public will also be able to share in the illustrious history of the space shuttle program.

"Our ship Discovery was named after several predecessor ships, also named Discovery ? all ships of exploration," Barratt said. "It's a culmination of a great heritage. And we hope there are future ships bearing that name. We will be carrying a medallion from the Royal Society that was struck in honor of Captain Cook. On Cook's third voyage, there was a ship called Discovery, and that's the main ship for which our ship Discovery took its name."