Discovery's last mission under way

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Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida (AP)

Discovery, the world’s most travelled spaceship, has thundered into orbit for the final time, heading towards the International Space Station on a journey that marks the beginning of the end of the shuttle era.

The six astronauts on board, all experienced space fliers, were thrilled to be on their way after a delay of nearly four months for fuel tank repairs.

But it puts Discovery on the cusp of retirement when it returns in 11 days and eventually heads to a museum.

“Discovery now making one last reach for the stars,” the Mission Control commentator said once the shuttle cleared the launch tower.

Discovery is the oldest of Nasa’s three surviving space shuttles and the first to be decommissioned this year. Two missions remain, first by Atlantis and then Endeavour, to end the 30-year programme. It was Discovery’s 39th launch and the 133rd shuttle mission overall.

There were several tense minutes just before lift-off when an Air Force computer problem popped up and threatened to halt everything.

The issue was resolved and Discovery blasted off three minutes late at Cape Canaveral, with just two seconds to spare.

“Great way to go out,” said launch director Mike Leinbach. Launching late in the window like that “probably makes it a little bit more sweet.”

“I would say we scripted it that way,” added Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team, “but I could use a little less heart palpitations in the final couple seconds of the countdown”.

As the final minutes ticked away, commander Steven Lindsey thanked everyone for the work in getting Discovery ready. “And for those watching,” he called out, “get ready to witness the majesty and the power of Discovery as she lifts off one final time.”

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