CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —After 143 million miles and nearly a year all told in orbit, space shuttle Discovery is poised to blast off today one last time.
It promises to be a sentimental journey for the six astronauts assigned to the mission as well as the supporting cast of thousands who have painstakingly prepped the world's most-traveled spacecraft.
Once more, NASA's fleet leader is paving a new road, one that leads to shuttle retirement and an uncertain future for America's space program.
When Discovery returns from the International Space Station, it will be the first of the three surviving shuttles to be decommissioned this year and shipped off to a museum. The Smithsonian Institution has dibs on this one.
For now, NASA prefers to focus on Discovery's last hurrah, an 11-day mission to deliver a bundle of space station supplies and an experimental humanoid robot that will become the first of its kind in space.
Launch director Mike Leinbach said Discovery has been "a great ship... an amazing machine."
"This is her 39th mission," he said Wednesday. "We'd have quite a few left in her had the program been extended, but it wasn't."