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A Spectacular Test Flight


After a two-and-a-half-year wait, everything finally came together on July 26, 2005.

Liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-114The weather was perfect at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Space Shuttle Discovery stood on its seaside launch pad. At 10:39 a.m. EDT, Discovery's twin white Solid Rocket Boosters thundered to life, carrying a crew of seven explorers on one of the most complicated and closely watched missions in history.

Image to left: A fish-eye view shows Space Shuttle Discovery moments after liftoff from Launch Pad 39B on the historic Return to Flight mission STS-114. Image credit: NASA/KSC

"Liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the Moon, Mars and beyond," exclaimed launch commentator George Diller.

During this test mission, NASA accomplished a variety of goals while also learning some important lessons. At liftoff, a large piece of insulating foam broke off the External Tank. Now, NASA engineers are working to determine what caused this and how to prevent it from happening in the future.

The first of two Return to Flight missions, STS-114 included breathtaking in-orbit maneuvers, tests of new equipment and procedures, a first-of-its-kind spacewalking repair, and phone calls from two world leaders.

View of Discovery during rendezvous pitch maneuverUsing the new Orbiter Boom Sensor System, Discovery crewmembers took an unprecedented up-close look at the orbiter's thermal protection system. This collection of new data was expanded on flight day three, when Commander Eileen Collins guided Discovery through the first-ever "rendezvous pitch maneuver" as the orbiter approached the International Space Station for docking.

Image to right: This photo of Discovery was taken by International Space Station NASA Science Officer and Flight Engineer John Phillips during the rendezvous pitch maneuver. Image credit: NASA/JSC

The slow-motion back flip allowed Station crewmembers John Phillips and Sergei Krikalev to snap high-resolution photos for mission managers to use to ensure Discovery was in good shape to come home.

During the first of three spacewalks, Mission Specialists Stephen Robinson and Soichi Noguchi tested new repair techniques for the outer skin of the Space Shuttle's heat shield and installed equipment outside the Station. They also repaired a Control Moment Gyroscope. Two days later, Robinson and Noguchi again ventured out into the vacuum of space to replace a failed Control Moment Gyro. Their efforts put all four of the Station's gyros back into service.

Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi during spacewalkImage to left: This Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi participates in the mission's first scheduled spacewalk July 30, 2005. Image credit: NASA/JSC

When two thermal protection tile gap-fillers were spotted jutting out of Discovery's underside, astronauts and other experts on the ground pulled together to devise a plan to ensure the protrusions would not cause higher-than-normal temperatures on the Shuttle during atmospheric reentry.

Ground controllers sent up plans to the Shuttle-Station complex for Robinson to ride the Station's robotic arm beneath the Shuttle and, with surgical precision, pluck out the gap-fillers.

Work on the Shuttle underbelly had never been tried before, but with Mission Specialist Wendy Lawrence and Pilot Jim Kelly operating the robotic arms, Mission Specialist Andy Thomas coordinating and fellow spacewalker Noguchi keeping watch, Robinson delicately completed the extraction during the third and final spacewalk.

"Okay, that came out very easily," Robinson said after carefully removing one of the fillers. "It looks like this big patient is cured."

The crew received phone calls from President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who offered congratulations and appreciation for the astronauts' hard work.

STS-114 and Expedition 11 crew membersTogether, both the Discovery and Station crews paid tribute to the astronauts of Columbia, as well as others who gave their lives for space exploration.

Image to right: In a rare scene of relaxation, members of both crews gather onboard the International Space Station. From left are Expedition 11 crewmembers John Phillips and Sergei Krikalev, and STS-114 crewmembers James Kelly, Soichi Noguchi, and Eileen Collins. Image credit: NASA/JSC

With the mission drawing to a close, the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Raffaello was removed from the Space Station and reinstalled in Discovery's payload bay.

Raffaello arrived at the Station with more than 12,000 pounds of equipment and supplies and carried about 7,000 pounds of Station material on the trip back to Earth. After nine days of cooperative work, Discovery undocked from the International Space Station Aug. 6 and parted ways.

The STS-114 crew was given an extra day in orbit Aug. 8, when the first attempt to land at Kennedy Space Center was foiled by uncooperative weather. But even though cloudy skies reappeared at the Shuttle's home port the next morning, NASA was ready with a backup plan: a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California, where the weather was perfect.

Discovery touched down at 5:12 a.m. PDT on Aug. 9 at Edwards.

Landing commentator James Hartsfield marked each milestone as the orbiter rolled down runway 22 in the pre-dawn darkness: "Main gear touchdown. Drag chute deploy. Nose gear touchdown... and Discovery is home."

Landing of Space Shuttle DiscoveryImage to left: Space Shuttle Discovery glides to a pre-dawn landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Image credit: NASA/DFRC

Capsule Communicator Ken Ham congratulated the returning crew on a spectacular test flight. "Stevie Ray, Soichi, Andy, Vegas, Charlie, Wendy and Eileen -- welcome home, friends."

Those words, Collins said, were great to hear. "We're happy to be back, and we congratulate the whole team for a job well done."

Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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