Night Lights: Shuttle Discovery Rockets Toward Space Station

Night Lights: Shuttle Discovery Rockets Toward Space Station
NASA's space shuttle Discovery blasts off from Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 9, 2006. (Image credit:

This story was updated at9:19 p.m. EST.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - For a few brief moments, night turned to day at NASA's Kennedy SpaceCenter (KSC) as the shuttle Discovery climbed into space atop twincolumns of fire and smoke in the agency's first evening launch in four years.

Discovery lifted off at 8:47:35 p.m. EST (0147:35 Dec. 10GMT) from Pad 39B here, arcing skyward like a brilliant flare. The white,pulsating glow of the shuttle's boosters wasexpected to be visible along the entire Eastern Seaboard as the craft madeits way towards the InternationalSpace Station (ISS).

"We look forward to lighting up the night sky and rewiringthe ISS," Discovery's STS-116 commander Mark Polansky told launch controllers. "You're all going tobe with us going into orbit."

Discovery's flight comes two daysafter low clouds forced NASA launch controllers to scrub a planned Thursdayliftoff just minutes before launch. Saturday's forecast was initially gloomy aswell, at only 30 percent for Go, but the outlook reversed dramatically late inthe day to 70 percent. Shuttle engineers and pad workers were also able to getlaunch preparations back on track after a series of delays.

Flying onboard Discovery with Polanskywere shuttle pilot WilliamOefelein and mission specialists RobertCurbeam, NicholasPatrick, JoanHigginbotham, Sunita Williams and Christer Fuglesang, arepresentative of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Sweden's first astronaut.All of the astronauts, with the exception of Polanskyand Curbeam, are flying in space for the first time.

"I think we have five people just haven't stopped smilingyet," Polansky after Discovery reached orbit.

The successful launch of Discovery marked the beginning ofthe plane's 33rd flight--more than any other orbiter in NASA'sfleet. The mission is NASA's 117th shuttle flight and the 20thbound for the ISS. It is also NASA's third shuttle flight this year and theagency's first liftoff in darkness since2002.

"I've always told people, 'If you see a day launch, yougotta come back and see a night launch,'" StephanieStilson, Discovery's vehicle flow manager, told"It's a completely different perspective. One minute it's pitch dark, nextminute you can turn around and see the people in the crowd that you couldn'tsee before when you're standing outside watching it."

A welcome return to night launches

Discovery's STS-116 launch is NASA's fourth space shuttlemission to fly after the 2003Columbia tragedy that claimed the lives of seven astronauts.

Following that disaster, daylight restrictions were placedon shuttle launches so cameras could track any potentially harmful debris shedduring liftoff. But emboldened by twosuccessful test flights that evaluated post-Columbiasafety modifications and the addition of now standard in-orbitinspection techniques to scan for heat shield damage, NASA officialsdecided it was time to reinstate nightlaunches.

The move is a welcome one, and necessary if the agency is tofulfill international obligations to help complete ISS construction bySeptember 2010, after which NASA's three-orbiter shuttle fleet will be retired.

"At this point we are as confident as we are likely toget that it's safe to return to the kind of operations that we simply mustadapt if we are to complete the ISS by 2010," said NASA shuttle chiefWayne Hale.

Three radar systems and more than100 cameras were trained on Discovery during its ascent to detect and trackdebris falling from its external tank.

Challenging space station construction

During their 12-day mission, the STS-116 crew willparticipate in three spacewalks to install a new $11 million Port 5(P5) spacer segment to the ISS, switch on a thermal cooling system andrewire the orbital laboratory's electrical grid so it can draw power from a newset of solarpanels arrays installed last month.

"I think we're just going to see the station moving more andmore towards completion," Polansky told reporters in prelaunch interview, adding that each ISS constructionmission relies on the success of the previous one. "We just hope that we'regoing to be just one of many that are going to be doing similar things."

The challenging rewiring tasks will involve heavilychoreographed power-downs of different sections of the ISS at a time to allowspacewalkers to unplug and then replug power cableson the station.

"Many of us consider this the most challenging flightthat the International Space Station program will have done since we began theeffort of assembling the ISS," said NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini.

"When you look at the space station when the shuttle leaves, it's notgoing to look hardly any different than when they got there. But it will be adramatically different vehicle inside when we finish all the reconfigurations,"he added. "So this is a big flight for us and we're looking forward toit."

The STS-116 mission also involves a crewswap between Williams and German ESA astronaut, ThomasReiter, who has been aboard the station since July. Williams will takeReiter's place as Expedition14 flight engineer and Reiter is expected to return to Earth withDiscovery's crew on Dec. 21.

Space station flight controllers told Reiter and his ISScrewmates of Discovery's successful launch shortly after liftoff, prompting aheartfelt congratulation from Expedition14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria.

"It's a wonderful achievement," Lopez-Alegriasaid as the ISS orbited 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Earth. "We're going togo head out and turn the porch light on so they can find us."

Discovery is scheduled to dock with the ISS at 5:08 p.m. EST(2208 GMT) on Monday, Dec. 11.

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Staff Writer

Ker Than is a science writer and children's book author who joined as a Staff Writer from 2005 to 2007. Ker covered astronomy and human spaceflight while at, including space shuttle launches, and has authored three science books for kids about earthquakes, stars and black holes. Ker's work has also appeared in National Geographic, Nature News, New Scientist and Sky & Telescope, among others. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UC Irvine and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University. Ker is currently the Director of Science Communications at Stanford University.