Independence Day fireworks started a little early on July 4, 2006, with the spectacular launch of Space Shuttle Discovery from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The changeable Florida weather cooperated and clear skies prevailed. Thousands of spectators across the Space Coast could be heard cheering and applauding when the orbiter rumbled into the sky.
Image left: Space Shuttle Discovery made U.S. history when it became the first space shuttle to launch on Independence Day. Photo credit: NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall/Tony Gray + High-res Image
Steve Lindsey commanded a crew of five American astronauts -- Pilot Mark Kelly and Mission Specialists Michael Fossum, Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson and Piers Sellers -- and the European Space Agency's Thomas Reiter from Germany.
In the days before liftoff, the entire Discovery crew participated in flight training with T-38 jets at Kennedy. Lindsey and Kelly also practiced landing techniques in the Shuttle Training Aircraft
Typical summer weather patterns in Florida forced launch officials to scrub launch attempts on July 1 and 2, but the launch countdown proceeded flawlessly on July 4.
On July 5, the first full day in orbit, Discovery's crew focused on inspecting the orbiter's thermal protection system. The inspection took several hours and the astronauts found no evidence of any damage from the flight.
Image right: As Discovery approached the space station for docking, the shuttle was positioned so a series of inspection photos could be taken of its underside. Photo credit: NASA + High-res Image
Early July 6, Lindsey piloted the orbiter into a backflip, called a "rendezvous pitch maneuver," within range of the International Space Station. This belly-up position gave the station's Expedition 13 crewmembers, Commander Pavel Vinogradov and NASA Science Officer Jeff Williams, a chance to photograph the thermal protection tiles on the bottom of Discovery.
After docking at 12:30 p.m. EDT, the hatches between the vehicles were opened and the Discovery team greeted the station crew. Reiter would remain onboard the station at the mission's end, and his arrival marked the first time in more than three years that the station had a three-person crew. The Expedition crew also became the first to include an American, a Russian and a European.
Image left: Wilson (center), works with the Mobile Service System and Canadarm2 controls to move the Italian-built Leonardo module to the station's Unity node. Williams (foreground), Fossum and Nowak assisted. Photo credit: NASA + High-res Image
The fourth day in space was a busy one. In order to unload the cargo from the multi-purpose logistics module Leonardo
, the astronauts had to remove the module from Discovery's payload bay using the robotic arm and moor it to the space station's Unity module. After Leonardo was in place, they began unloading more than 7,000 pounds of equipment and supplies.
Fossum and Sellers made preparations for the next day's spacewalk and reviewed procedures to configure Quest
, the U.S. airlock. Quest is made up of a pair of pressurized chambers attached end-to-end by a connecting bulkhead and hatch, which is the main exit and entry access for spacewalkers.
Image right: In the Quest airlock, Sellers (right) and Fossum outfitted in their spacesuits, prepare for a spacewalk. Photo Credit: NASA + High-res Image
On July 8, Sellers and Fossum had their work cut out for them. The first spacewalk of the mission, lasting seven hours and 31-minutes, included repairing the Interface Umbilical Assembly and preparing the station's rail car for restoration.
At the same time, the space station was a hub of activity as Lindsey, Vinogradov and Reiter unloaded supplies and equipment from Leonardo.
On July 9, crew members from both Discovery and the station were involved with the unloading, the primary activity for the day.
The saying "what goes up must come down" was true in space too. When the module was emptied out, it was refilled with almost 4,400 pounds of unneeded and broken equipment, scientific experiment results and trash for transport back to Earth.
Image left: The STS-121 and Expedition 13 crewmembers gather for a group photo. From the front row left are Reiter, Vinogradov and Williams. On the middle row left are Wilson, Lindsey and Nowak. On the top row left are Sellers, Fossum and Kelly. Photo Credit: NASA + High-res Image
Good news came late in the day when John Shannon, chairman of the Mission Management Team, announced that Discovery was cleared for its return to Earth. The orbiter's heat shield was found free of damage from ascent and void of any evidence of dents or dings caused by space debris.
During the second spacewalk on July 10, which lasted nearly seven hours, repairs went smoothly to restore the station's mobile transporter rail car to full operation.
All of the crew members participated in repacking the module on day eight of the mission in order to have Leonardo ready for its return to Discovery's payload bay.
In a private phone call, President George W. Bush offered his best wishes to the crews of Discovery and the International Space Station. The president told the astronauts they represent the best of service and exploration, and he thanked them for their hard work.
Image right: Sellers makes his way along a truss during the third spacewalk. Photo Credit: NASA + High-res Image
On their third and final spacewalk on July 12, Sellers and Fossum used a "space-certified" caulking gun and a variety of spatulas and tools to test materials on samples of pre-damaged reinforced carbon-carbon panels. "We're getting some good stuff done here, mate," Sellers told Fossum during the spacewalk.
On Thursday, the Discovery crew enjoyed a day of rest and relaxation. The astronauts spoke with the media by satellite and performed some basic housekeeping tasks, as well as their daily exercises.
Wilson and Nowak used the station's robotic arm to return the Leonardo module to Discovery's payload bay on July 14. Discovery undocked from the station at 6:08 a.m. the next day to begin the two-day trip back to Earth.
Image left: Discovery releases a drag chute to slow its speed as it gently touches down on Runway 15 at NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility. Photo credit: NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall + High-res Image
After a 13-day, five-million-mile journey, the Discovery crew landed safely at Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility
at 9:14 a.m. July 17 to a cheering crowd of employees and media. Landing
an orbiter is never a small feat; the vehicle descends through the atmosphere like a flying brick, using only its steering jets, and must be carefully guided to the ground like a high-tech glider.
The crew accomplished the main objectives of the mission: completing the return-to-flight objectives by flying an improved external tank and testing on-orbit shuttle repair procedures, and preparing the International Space Station for future assembly.
The astronauts made their customary inspection walk around the orbiter and lined up for photos. Lindsey spoke briefly to the media before the crew returned to their quarters for a family reunion and medical check-ups. "We had a long, but very successful mission," he said.
Image right: Following the traditional post-flight walk-around after landing, the STS-121 crewmembers pose for a photo in front of Discovery. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
+ High-res Image
"I'd like to thank this crew standing here. They were absolutely superb the entire flight. I couldn't have asked more from them. It was a privilege for me to serve with them," exclaimed Lindsey proudly.
Elaine M. Marconi
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center