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US: Shuttle nears space station after delayed launch

By Mike Schneider
16 Mar 2009 7:33 PM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida, March 16 AP - Seven astronauts raced to the international space station aboard the space shuttle Discovery after a successful launch that was delayed five times and caused the mission to be shortened by a day.

The delays forced a spacewalk to be axed, but mission managers said they would still be able to complete 80 to 90 per cent of the tasks they had planned.

The cancelled spacewalk chores will be tackled by the space station crew after Discovery leaves.

"It's not a major setback to us," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, after Sunday evening's launch.

"We're able to accomplish everything we want."

That includes dropping off the space station's newest crew member: Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is replacing US astronaut Sandra Magnus.

>From Tokyo, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said he was relieved by the successful launch on Monday after the delays.

Other tasks during the 13-day mission include installing the station's last pair of solar wings so the orbiting outpost can operate at full power.

The solar wings will join six already in place.

The crew will also deliver supplies and hardware, most notably replacing a broken machine that turns urine into drinking water and a flusher and iodine solution to get rid of bacteria that is lurking in the water dispenser.

Mission managers were dazzled by the beauty of the sunset launch, which left a kilometres-long plume trail that glowed gold and pink from the day's last sunlight.

Launch controllers could see the shuttle for seven minutes, until it reached somewhere off the New York or New Jersey coast.

"For the folks who watched this launch on TV, I really wish you could have been here in Florida," launch director Mike Leinbach said. "I've seen a lot of launches ... and this was the most visually beautiful launch I've ever seen. It was just spectacular."

Discovery should reach the space station on Tuesday.

NASA managers faced a tight schedule to get Discovery off the ground because of a Russian Soyuz rocket launch on March 26.

Discovery needs to be gone from the space station by the time the Russian spacecraft flies.

The Soyuz will carry up a fresh crew for the space station.

NASA had until Tuesday to get Discovery flying or else the launch would have been bumped to April.

Problems with hydrogen valves kept the shuttle grounded for weeks in February and then a hydrogen leak during fuelling prevented launch last Wednesday.

The valves worked as they should have and there were no leaks during fuelling on Sunday.

"We'll see you in a couple weeks," Commander Lee Archambault radioed minutes before the launch.

Discovery's crew also included pilot Tony Antonelli and astronauts Joseph Acaba, Steve Swanson, Richard Arnold and John Philips. Acaba and Arnold are former teachers.

Gerstenmaier said there was no apparent debris that came off the external fuel tank after a "first, quick look".

Debris has been a concern for NASA since a piece flew off the fuel tank and caused a breach in the wing of Columbia in 2003, dooming the shuttle and its seven crew members.

As insurance, Discovery's crew will spend a good part of Monday examining the shuttle's thermal protection system with cameras and sensors attached to a boom which is hooked to the shuttle's robotic arm.

A likely piece of debris that did not pose any threat to the shuttle was a fruit bat that made a home on the shuttle's external tank for several hours before launch. Although the bat's fate was unknown, it likely perished.

"We're characterising him as unexpected debris and he's probably still unexpected debris somewhere," Leinbach said to laughter at a post-launch news conference.