A new space age

Thundering along a fiery trail to orbit, the Discovery carried the seven-member crew of STS-124 and the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday.

STS-124 is a strong reminder to both NASA and the nation that times are changing for the aeronautics community.

There are only 10 flights left in the shuttle program, after which the shuttles will go to museums and NASA will begin sending astronauts to explore space in new spacecraft.

After the Columbia accident in 2003, President George W. Bush announced his “Vision for Space Exploration,” which will retire the space shuttle by 2010. Instead, a new type of spacecraft will be used in future manned missions to the moon and eventually Mars.

The largest segment of the ISS flown so far was carried by the Discovery and is crucial to the fulfilling of the ISS’s role as a world-class laboratory.

That segment is Japan’s $1 billion, 32,000-pound lab named Kibo, the Japanese word for hope. The massive, bus-sized component is part of Japan’s contribution to the ISS. Kibo’s main purpose is to add serious scientific firepower to the station. The Kibo is a massive complex that, when completed, will have two robotic arms and a large “front porch” where different compounds and experiments can be exposed to the harsh vacuum of space.

The station’s construction was hampered by the Columbia accident but has roared back in the past two years. STS-124 actually delivered the second component of the Kibo complex. The first was sent aboard the Endeavour in March and the last segment will be launched later this year.

The lab’s size forced NASA to leave behind the shuttle’s 50-foot long, laser-tipped boom, originally added to the end of the shuttle’s robotic arm. The crew normally uses it to inspect the shuttle for damage after reaching orbit. The instrument was left at the station until the arrival of STS-124. The boom will be reattached after the mission.

The U.S. and Japanese astronauts on the Discovery crew have three spacewalks planned: installing the Kibo complex, replacing a nitrogen tank and testing repair methods on a bulky solar array.

The completion of this mission will mark the end of astronaut Garrett Reisman’s stay at the ISS. Reisman arrived at the station last March aboard the Endeavour.

Of the 10 remaining shuttle flights, only one will not be going to the ISS. It will be headed to the Hubble Space Telescope. That mission is set to launch Oct. 8.

The shuttle and its crew will return to Kennedy Space Center on June 14.