Space shuttle Discovery, NASA's oldest surviving space shuttle and the beloved workhorse of the fleet, rocketed up into the sky on Thursday afternoon for a bittersweet final voyage.
Discovery's final countdown was a nail-biter. Although the weather had looked beautiful all day, and the shuttle was ready to go, small problems did crop up.
Technicians had to make a small repair late in the day, when a tile in the shuttle's heat shield got slightly damaged after the crew was onboard. A computer glitch almost forced NASA managers to call off the launch attempt with just minutes left in the countdown.
But the launch team pressed on and managed to resolve the issue.
"Get ready to witness the majesty and the power of Discovery as she lifts off one final time," Commander Steve Lindsey said just before launch, as he thanked NASA workers for the work they had done to get the shuttle ready.
Large crowds gathered in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch Discovery blast off from Kennedy Space Center toward the International Space Station. After this 11-day mission ends, the aging shuttle will never leave Earth again.
It will become the first shuttle to be retired and will get turned into a museum exhibit. Although NASA has not yet announced which museum will get the prize, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., has expressed interest in displaying this historic spaceship, which made its maiden flight back in 1984.
"Discovery is the champion of the shuttle fleet," says Valerie Neal of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "Everything that the space shuttle was intended to do, Discovery, and only Discovery, has done."
Discovery's final takeoff marks the beginning of the end of NASA's 30-year-old space shuttle era. Each of the shuttles — Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery — has just one mission left. After that, NASA astronauts will have to be ferried up to the space station first by the Russian space program, then possibly by commercial space companies.
"Am I sad because this is Discovery's last mission? I am. I would love to see Discovery continue to fly, as would everybody else that I work with as well," says Stephanie Stilson of Kennedy Space Center in Florida, who leads the ground crews that take care of Discovery between its flights. "We all would love to see the shuttle program continue for years and years."
Discovery has flown more times than any other shuttle, and this is its 39th mission. Its total days in orbit add up to almost a whole year, and it has carried 194 different astronauts, according to NASA. It has deployed satellites — including the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 — done science missions, and hauled up big chunks of the International Space Station.
Over the years, its crews have featured a bunch of famous firsts, such as the first Russian cosmonaut to ride on a shuttle, the first female pilot, and the first African-American commander. What's more, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, returned to orbit with Discovery in 1998.
And both of the times that NASA had its heart broken by a major shuttle disaster, Discovery was the first shuttle to return to flight and get the agency back on track. That, and the fact that it has flown so often, has made Discovery a sentimental favorite for many spaceflight fans.
"It is a historic thing, I think, that we have such a special vehicle to fly," astronaut Nicole Stott said in a preflight news conference. She flew on Discovery in 2009 and is now part of its current crew. "And the hope, in addition to having a successful mission, is that in conclusion, we'll be celebrating the real significance of the vehicle itself." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.