Discovery heading to Alpha
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- The space shuttle Discovery headed for a rendezvous with international space station Alpha after an apparently flawless launch from Kennedy Space Center.
The shuttle will catch up with the space station around midnight Eastern Standard Time on Friday. Docking is early Saturday.
The orbiter lifted off right on time at 6:42 a.m. EST on Thursday, roaring into a clear, blue sky and leaving behind its signature plume of white smoke.
"It was just a beautiful launch," Jim Halsell, director of shuttle launch integration said at a post launch briefing.
The countdown leading up to launch was nearly flawless, with NASA reporting no major pre-launch issues.
"It was an extremely clean countdown," said Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director. "In fact, we're checking our records to see if it was the cleanest one ever."
The primary objective of the 12-day mission is to transport the first replacement team for space station Alpha. Cosmonaut Yury Usachev and astronauts James Voss and Susan Helms will replace U.S. commander Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. Usachev will assume command of the space station once Discovery undocks.
The shuttle crew also includes pilot James Kelly and mission specialists Andrew Thomas and Paul Richards.
Discovery will deliver the Italian-built Leonardo Multipurpose Logistics Module (MPLM). The module is a NASA-style moving van loaded with the first scientific experiments for the space station's new Destiny science lab. Leonardo will be attached to Destiny while the crew unloads its contents. Later in the mission, the module will be reloaded into Discovery's cargo bay and returned to Earth for re-use.
Two spacewalks are planned to help dock Leonardo and to configure the space station for the arrival of a robot arm in April.
A heavy return
NASA relayed word of the successful launch to the crew of Alpha as the space station passed over the Indian Ocean near Australia.
The current Alpha crew has been living aboard the space station since November 2. Although they have had a strict exercise regimen in orbit to keep their bodies strong, the crew members will need several weeks to re-adapt to gravity on Earth.
They will ride back on Discovery in a reclining position, rather than sitting upright, to reduce lightheadedness that occurs when gravity pushes blood and other body fluids downward away from the brain.
Once they are back on the ground, U.S. and Russian strength and rehabilitation experts will work with the crew to help them restore bone and muscle strength.
Discovery will spend about eight days attached to the space station. The shuttle is scheduled to land at 2:02 a.m. on March 20 at Kennedy Space Center.
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