Space Shuttle Discovery prepares for launch

Picture essay - So long Shuttle

The USA began to wind down its Space Shuttle programme this month with the completion of Discovery's swansong mission

The Space Shuttle has been in active service for 30 years. Here we document its final mission, which was completed successfully on 9 March when Discovery touched down at the Kennedy Space Center.

  1. The rotating service structure is rolled back from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral as Space Shuttle Discovery is prepared for launch on 23'February 2011. Under current plans, it will be the first of the three remaining operational shuttles to be retired.
  2. The next day, Discovery lifts off on mission STS-133 to the International Space Station with six astronauts on board. Its cargo includes the Leonardo pressurised multipurpose module, which will provide the ISS with space to store spare parts, supplies and waste. The 35th shuttle mission to the station will also deliver the ELC-4 platform for external payloads, and the Robonaut 2 robot astronaut.
  3. A long-range tracking camera shows a close-up view of Discovery en route to space with its three main engines and two solid-rocket boosters firing. The boosters, which are jettisoned two minutes after launch and recovered from the sea for reuse, each provide 12.5 million Newtons of thrust at lift off.
  4. Chunks of foam insulation break free from Discovery's external fuel tank, bouncing off the Shuttle's underside. The tank, which supplies liquid oxygen and fuel to the main engines, is the only part of the craft that is not reused.
  5. At an altitude of 380km, Discovery approaches the International Space Station, where shuttle astronauts are to work alongside the crew to prepare the orbital outpost for life after the US retires its three existing spaceships.
  6. Astronaut Steve Bowen at work outside the space station during the STS-133 mission's second space walk. Bowen's first trip outside the station had been interrupted when a system failure temporarily shut down the 17m robotic arm he was riding as he worked on an ammonia pump.
  7. Discovery commander Steve Lindsey (left) hugs ISS crew member Paolo Nespoli goodbye before the hatches between the two spacecraft are closed. Nespoli is one of six members of ISS Expedition 26, responsible for maintaining the record for the longest uninterrupted human presence in space.
  8. At the end of its 13-day spaceflight, Discovery sits on the runway at Kennedy Space Center. Set to spend its retirement on display at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum, since 1984 it has spent 365 days in space, the longest of any craft in the world.

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