CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Space shuttle Discovery thundered into orbit Tuesday on NASA’s last voyage to Mir, a flight to bring home the seventh and final American to stay aboard the Russian space station.
The shuttle and its crew of six took off right on time, though it was one of the hottest launches ever. In the final minutes of the countdown, the temperature hovered at 95 degrees, prompting NASA to keep close watch on the hydraulic systems at the pad, especially the movable walkway. The limit for launching is 99 degrees.
Commander Charles Precourt couldn’t resist shouting out in Russian seconds after the booster rockets lit: “Poyekhali,” which means “Off we go.”
About 250 miles above Earth, Mir’s automatic thrusters were firing on cue, keeping the station on an unswerving course. The cosmonauts fixed the steering system Monday, three days after it shut down. Without automatic steering, Mir would have been too shaky for a shuttle docking.
Discovery is scheduled to reach Mir on Thursday and bring NASA astronaut Andrew Thomas back to Earth on June 12 after his four-month station stay.
From then on, NASA will concentrate on the international space station; construction will begin in orbit at the end of the year.
The Russians plan to continue flying aboard Mir through 1999. After their return, they will let it burn up in the atmosphere, then will focus all their efforts on the new joint space station.
Mir’s three-man crew was reportedly asleep when Discovery blasted off; the space station was flying over Ireland 5,500 miles away on its 70,183rd swing around the world. Earlier in the day, Thomas informed flight controllers he’d like some lasagna and Oreo ice cream waiting for him when he gets back.
The countdown was tenser than usual, not just because of the anxiety over Mir but because of the new lightweight fuel tank bolted to Discovery during liftoff. The tank, never before tested in flight, is 7,500 pounds lighter when empty than the 65,500-pound previous models so that NASA can haul heavier cargo once space station construction begins. NASA said early indications show the tank worked well.
This will be NASA’s ninth and final linkup with Mir. As usual, the shuttle will transport a few thousand pounds of water, food and other supplies to the Russians, and bring back U.S. experiments.
This time, all of NASA’s science gear will return aboard Discovery.
Perhaps more than anything, the three-year exchange program taught NASA that long-duration space travel is harder than thought, said shuttle-Mir director Frank Culbertson.