by Marcia Dunn
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP)—Discovery and seven astronauts headed for a rendezvous with the International Space Station after a pre-dawn liftoff Monday on one of the last missions for NASA’s shuttle program.
The launch—the last one scheduled in darkness for NASA’s fading shuttle program—helped set a record for the most women in space at the same time. Three women are aboard Discovery, and another is already at the space station, making for an unprecedented foursome.
Men still outnumber the women by more than 2-to-1 aboard the shuttle and station, but that doesn’t take away from the remarkable achievement, coming 27 years after America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride, rocketed into space.
A former schoolteacher is among the four female astronauts about to make history, as well as a chemist who once worked as an electrician, and two aerospace engineers. Three are American; one is Japanese.
Onboard discovery are Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, mission specialist Stephanie Wilson and mission specialist Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger.
Wilson became the second Black woman in space in 2006; one other has since followed her.
Yamazaki will become the second Japanese woman to fly in space. Dr. Chiaki Mukai was the first in 1994.
Only three shuttle missions remain after this one. NASA intends to retire its fleet by the end of September, but is unsure what will follow for human spaceflight. President Barack Obama will visit the area April 15, while Discovery is still in orbit, to fill in some of the blanks.
NASA’s moon exploration program, Constellation, already has been canceled by Obama.
The launch team temporarily put aside its worries about NASA’s uncertain future and basked in the glow of a successful launch.
“Folks were just immensely proud and happy,” Nickolenko said. “Certainly, in the next coming days and weeks, I don’t doubt there will be some reflection.”
The space station will continue operating until 2020 under the Obama plan. The idea is for commercial rocket companies to eventually provide ferry service for astronauts. Right now, NASA is paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. That’s how U.S. astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson got to the space station Sunday, two days after being launched from Kazakhstan.
Once combined, the shuttle and station crews will number 13: eight Americans, three Russians and two Japanese.