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Discovery Rockets Toward Space Station

The space shuttle Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station following a successful liftoff early Monday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

Discovery and its seven-member crew launched from Kennedy at 6:21 a.m. and are now in orbit above the Earth, NASA said.

The astronauts have a busy schedule in the days ahead. The 13-day mission, officially known as STS-131, will see the crew perform three spacewalks.

They'll also dock with the ISS to deliver the Leonardo multi-purpose logistics module containing science racks for use in the various labs throughout the station.

The module also contains new sleeping quarters and other supplies.

The astronauts will also collect a Japanese science experiment and switch out a gyro assembly on part of the station's truss structure, according to the space agency.

Discovery is commanded by U.S. Navy Captain Alan Poindexter, 48, of Rockville, MD. Three of the crewmembers—pilot Jim Dutton, mission specialist Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, and mission specialist Naoko Yamakazi of the Japanese Space Agency—are making their first flights into space.

Only three more shuttle flights remain before the vehicles are retired at the end of this year. Under a plan put forth by the Obama Administration, NASA will effectively outsource transportation of crew and supplies to the ISS to private launch contractors.

President Obama also called for the cancellation of the Constellation program, which would have seen astronauts return to the moon by 2020 in a new space vehicle made up of the Orion crew capsule and Ares rocket.

Critics, including senators in states where NASA is a major employer, have said Obama's plan will leave the U.S. trailing other countries in the space race.

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