Shuttle Discovery blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at sunrise this morning to deliver a new resident crew to the International Space Station (ISS) as the third shuttle mission in less than four months began in flawless fashion.
Commander Jim Wetherbee, Pilot Jim Kelly and Mission Specialists Andy Thomas, Paul Richards, Yury Usachev, Jim Voss and Susan Helms rocketed away from Launch Pad 39-B at 5:42 a.m. Central time, lighting up the crystal clear central Florida skies as they began their pursuit of the international complex. Usachev, Voss and Helms, who make up the second Expeditionary crew to the ISS, will replace Expedition One Commander Bill Shepherd, Pilot Yuri Gidzenko and Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev, who were in their 128th day in space and their 126th day aboard the Station as Discovery began its pursuit.
At the time of launch, the three Expedition One crewmembers aboard the ISS were passing over the south Pacific, about 1000 statute miles south of Perth, Australia. Shortly after Discovery reached orbit, a videotape of the Shuttle launch was uplinked to the Station crew on a laptop computer onboard.
Less than nine minutes after liftoff, Discovery's astronauts settled into orbit and went to work to prepare the Shuttle's systems for their planned 12-day mission. The first major task on the flight plan was to open Discovery's cargo bay doors prior to receiving a "go" for orbital operations from Ascent Flight Director Wayne Hale. The astronauts are expected to set up computers and flight deck gear before beginning an eight-hour sleep period at 10:42 a.m. Central time. The Shuttle crew will be awakened at 6:42 p.m. Thursday to begin its first full day in space.
With this morning's successful launch behind them, Discovery's astronauts will turn their attention to their chase of the International Space Station, performing several firings of the ship's jet thrusters over the next 40 hours to set up a docking with the outpost on Friday night just before midnight Central time. Over the ensuing week, the crew will perform two space walks outside the ISS as they help to outfit the recently installed Destiny research laboratory. The Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, built by the Italian Space Agency, will be attached to the ISS early next week, loaded with almost five tons of equipment, and systems and science racks for transfer to Destiny.
The Expedition crews will exchange places on the ISS in a three-step fashion, beginning with Usachev and Gidzenko swapping roles as Station and Shuttle crewmembers early Saturday within hours after docking.
Discovery is circling the Earth in excellent shape as it flies in an orbit inclined 51.6 degrees to either side of the Equator. The International Space Station continues to sail around the Earth with no significant systems issues being tracked by ISS flight controllers.
The next STS-102 mission status report will be issued this evening following the wakeup call to Discovery's astronauts from Mission Control.
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