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Discovery's final countdown: Space shuttle launch signals NASA transition

As Discovery prepares for her last space shuttle launch, NASA's human spaceflight program shifts from space station ferry-service to missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

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The space shuttle Discovery prepares for launch at Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 39A, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Feb. 23. Discovery is scheduled for launch with a crew of six astronauts on February 24 on a mission to the International Space Station – her final flight.

Joe Skipper / Reuters

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After 27 years and more than 143 million miles, the space shuttle Discovery is poised for her final countdown.

The orbiter and its crew of six astronauts are scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:50 p.m. local time – with a packed cargo bay.

The ship is carrying an Italian-built cargo carrier re-engineered to provide extra storage space on the International Space Station. In addition, the orbiter is lofting some 5 tons of supplies and Robonaut 2, which designers envision as an eventual humanoid helpmate for future space-station crews.

Discovery's launch marks the first of three curtain calls – one for each of the remaining vessels in the shuttle fleet – as NASA's human spaceflight program enters a period of profound transition.

NASA is handing off the responsibility of ferrying goods and US astronauts to and from the station to private launch companies.

NASA can then focus on preparing to send human explorers beyond the space station's confines in low-Earth orbit, possibly to asteroids, the moon, and Mars.

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