STS-131: The Launch The World Forgot.

You know something’s up when a space nut like myself misses some juicy blog fodder such as the latest Shuttle launch. Whilst I’ve been off slandering the iPad and its fans the good folks at NASA have been hard at work with STS-131 launching into space early in the morning just three days ago. It’s also a sign of the media’s waning interest in the Shuttle program as usually a few news outlets pick up on it and I’ll be treated to some wonderful Shuttle imagery over my morning coffee. That unfortunately wasn’t to be this time around.

STS-131 is the fourth last of the currently planned Shuttle missions and the second last mission for the space Shuttle Discovery. Additionally this will be the last mission to take up a full compliment of 7 astronauts and the last mission that any first time astronauts will be riding the Shuttle into space. Couple this with the mission’s payload (more on that below) it’s a sign that the Shuttle program is well on its way to retirement at the end of this year. All that’s left to do is gear the International Space Station up as much as we can whilst NASA sorts out what its next transport solution will be.

The biggest part of STS-131 is the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) called Leonardo. The MPLMs (there are three of them) are pressurized containers used to transport cargo to and from the ISS. It is currently full to the brim with extra equipment for the ISS that includes:

As well as the usual compliment of food and supplies for the various experiments currently residing aboard the ISS. There’s nothing really amazing or spectacular about the payload of this mission apart from the fact that this won’t be the last visit to the ISS that MPLM Leonardo will make, albeit in a different form.

In their current form the MPLMs aren’t suited for long duration flights connected to the ISS. They lack appropriate shielding and interconnects with the various systems aboard the ISS that would enable them to become a permanent fixture, which is why they’re always carried back down at the end of the mission. A while back the European Space Agency (ESA) suggested that in order to reduce the number of resupply missions needed the MPLM Donatello should be upgraded (it would then be called a Pressurized Multipurpose Module) to serve as a permanent storage module on the ISS. Initially the idea was rejected due to costs but the plan is going to go ahead using the Leonardo MPLM instead. So after it is brought back to earth after this mission Leonardo will undergo extensive upgrades and will then be launched back up on the last mission STS-133.

As we near that final end date of September 16, 2010 every shuttle launch I see is always accompanied by a small twinge of sadness. Whilst this isn’t the final flight for Discovery it still marks one of the very last missions that the Shuttle will ever fly. Much like seeing an old friend off on a long trip overseas you know that you’ll see them again, but you still can’t help but feel sad for their departure.

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