Whitman grad soars into space

Dorothy 'Dottie' Metcalf-Lindenburger and her fellow crew members lifted off for the International Space Station this morning.

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An astronaut with local ties was among seven headed aboard the shuttle Discovery 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, including Whitman College graduate Dorothy "Dottie" Metcalf-Lindenburger, are aboard Discovery, and another is already at the space station, making for an unprecedented foursome. The shuttle should arrive at the orbiting outpost Wednesday.

Problems with Discovery's main antenna cropped up as soon as the shuttle reached orbit and could impact the radar needed for the rendezvous, Mission Control said. A spokesman stressed there were other tools to work around the situation. "We probably won't have answers for you today about what this means," Mission Control told the astronauts.

The nearly two-week mission will stock the space station with supplies and experiments.

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 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.

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