Educator Features

STS-121: Making the Shuttle Better Than Ever
The STS-121 crew
Space shuttle Discovery is on the launch pad, awaiting its flight this summer for the STS-121 mission. The first launch in almost a year, STS-121 will continue NASA's efforts to make the shuttle safer than ever.

Image to left: The crew of STS-121 includes three astronauts making their first spaceflight. Credit: NASA

During the 25 years since the first space shuttle launch, NASA has continued to improve the shuttles, upgrading them with new capabilities and more advanced technology. Following the loss of the STS-107 crew and space shuttle Columbia in February 2003, improvements have focused largely on the safety of the space shuttle fleet. Last year's STS-114 Return to Flight mission tested changes to a variety of elements of the shuttle program -- from the robotic arm on the orbiter to the cameras that capture the launch.

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+ Space Shuttle

+ International Space Station

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+ STS-121
For almost a year, NASA engineers have worked to make additional improvements to the shuttle, based on the data obtained during the STS-114 mission. Now, the agency is about to witness the fruits of that labor, when the STS-121 mission launches this summer.

Like last year's STS-114 mission, the focus of STS-121 will be to further test the safety improvements that have been made to the shuttle. Among those are new modifications to the shuttle's external tank that are intended to reduce the shedding of foam during launch. Also like last year's flight, the shuttle Discovery will carry supplies to the International Space Station.

Included in the delivery to the ISS will be one very important piece of "cargo" -- astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency. Reiter will join Expedition 13 crewmembers Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams, currently aboard the station, to become the first ESA astronaut to make a long-duration stay there. (Until now, all ISS crewmembers have represented NASA or the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos.) This will be the first time the station has been home to a three-person crew since Expedition 6 returned to Earth in May 2003.

The STS-121 patch features the names of the crew and a drawing of the shuttle docked with the space station in front of a star with three long rays and a background showing the Earth and a star field
Image to right: STS-121’s mission will include making improvements to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Steve Lindsey is commander of the mission, making his fourth spaceflight. Mark Kelly is the pilot. Rounding out the STS-121 crew are mission specialists Mike Fossum, Stephanie Wilson, Piers Sellers and Lisa Nowak. Fossum, Wilson and Nowak are all making their first spaceflight.

Two spacewalks are scheduled for the mission. During the spacewalks, the crew will test the new boom extension of the shuttle's robotic arm and perform maintenance on the Mobile Transporter, a movable base for the station's robotic arm. If time is available, the crew will also perform a third spacewalk, during which they will test additional shuttle safety techniques.

STS-121's mission of continuing the effort to return the shuttle fleet safely to flight is the next step in the Vision for Space Exploration, which will see humans return to the moon, and then explore onward to Mars and beyond.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services