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space shuttle discovery lifts off Space shuttle Discovery blazes into the night sky as it lifts off Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 15, 2009. (Photo: Reuters)

We Have Liftoff

NASA successfully launches space shuttle Discovery after monthlong delay

By Laura Leigh Davidson | March 16 , 2009

Space shuttle Discovery blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday evening. The mission was scheduled for February, but problems with the shuttle's hydrogen valves delayed the launch by a month.

Engineers have since replaced the cracked hydrogen valves in the shuttle's engine compartment. NASA described Sunday's launch as "picture perfect," with no apparent debris falling from the external fuel tanks.

Mission Control in Houston will continue to examine the shuttle throughout its 13-day mission. The focus of this shuttle mission is construction and repairs for the ISS.

Discovery is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Tuesday. But the crew might find the ISS has moved from its original "parking spot."

NASA said Monday that orbiting debris from an old satellite is on track to come within about a half mile of the ISS. Mission Control may have to fire the space station's engines to nudge it out of the way of the debris. A NASA spokesman told the Associated Press they would make the decision late on Monday.

This is the second time in two weeks that space junk has been a major concern for the ISS. Last week, astronauts aboard the station had to jump into their getaway capsule for 10 minutes because of a sudden close call with a piece of debris. The orbiting space junk ultimately missed the station.

If the space station has to move, the shuttle will have to adjust its course slightly to be in position for docking on Tuesday.

Once the seven-member Discovery crew docks with the ISS, the mission will turn to construction.

Working with the three astronauts currently aboard the ISS, the crew will attach a final set of power-generating solar wings to the station. They will also install a support structure (called a truss) to complete the backbone of the station.

The inside of the ISS is slated for repairs too. Astronauts will replace the broken water filtration system that turns condensation and urine into drinkable water.

The additional power generated by the new solar panels, as well as the repaired water system, will allow the space station to accommodate up to six astronauts.

NASA hopes to expand the space station crew to six people by the end of May.

Discovery will leave behind more than new solar wings and safe drinking water. Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will stay on the ISS to replace U.S. astronaut Sandra Magnus.

Wakata is the first resident station crew member from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). He will spend about three months on the station.

Wakata will be working on Japan's wing of the ISS, a space laboratory called Kibo, which was installed in 2008.

Magnus has been living on the ISS since November. She is scheduled to return on March 25 with the rest of the Discovery crew.

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