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Space Shuttle Discovery on Its Way!

Intrepid “shuttle geek” Susan Poulton is winging back home today after witnessing the space shuttle Discovery’s successful predawn lift-off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

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—Image courtesy NASA

Look out for further Poulton pictures and ruminations from the scene, but in the meanwhile, here’re a few details on STS-131.

Marking the fourth to the last shuttle launch before the fleet gets retired in the fall, Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station for a bit of orbital spring cleaning during its 13-day mission.

To spruce up the outside, the shuttle crew is planning on three spacewalks, during which astronauts will replace an ammonia coolant tank, switch out batteries for the solar array, and retrieve an exterior science experiment.

On the inside, the astronauts will be busy installing equipment they’ve hauled up, including racks of new science experiments, a freezer for preserving specimens, and a new exercise machine.

Coming home, the shuttle crew will be carrying down excess hardware and a cargo hold full of trash.

Perhaps in a cosmic nod to its “Cinderella” mission, the shuttle launch created a glowing trail arching over the Disney castle in Orlando, as seen by photographer Kent Phillips.

It seems a fitting frame, since Discovery is kind of a star within the space shuttle fleet.

It’s the oldest shuttle in operation, and it’s logged the most flights (37 so far) during the shuttle program’s nearly 30 years.

Among its career highlights, Discovery launched the “movie star” Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, made the “return to flight” launches after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters, flew the 100th shuttle mission in 2000, and will be the final shuttle to fly in September.

When it’s retired, Discovery is slated for a place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center—a fitting castle for this orbiting “princess.”

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