There Is Endeavour In Space, One Final Time
Night had turned into day less than a couple of hours ago there. As many as 500,000 people, including a wounded congresswoman with an astronaut love story, had been waiting all over again. Then the crowd finally saw the blastoff, the vehicle turn its back on Earth, the enormous tail of smoke and fire fade into the cloudy sky: Space shuttle Endeavour had begun its last voyage.
Endeavour and its six-member crew launched Monday at 5:56 a.m. PDT as scheduled from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was injured in January from an assassination attempt and has been recovering in Houston, was back to witness husband Mark Kelly, STS-134 commander, launch on his fourth spaceflight. President Barack Obama and his family, who visited Florida in late April for the first launch attempt, did not return this time.
The 16-day mission to the International Space Station will deliver spare parts, critical supplies and experiments, including a $2 billion particle physics detector-- the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2-- to help researchers study the formation of the universe. Four spacewalks, the last ones to be conducted at the space station by shuttle astronauts, are also planned.
"It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore," Kelly said shortly before liftoff. "We must not stop."
Kelly is joined on the historic flight by pilot Greg H. Johnson and mission specialists Michael Fincke, Andrew Feustel, Greg Chamitoff and Roberto Vittori. The veteran astronauts are due to arrive Wednesday at the orbiting laboratory, where six other people are currently living and conducting experiments.
“God Speed [sic],” Giffords' office tweeted shortly after the launching. The congresswoman, like other spouses and family members of the astronauts, watched the event in private at Kennedy.
The original launch attempt, on April 29, was scrubbed due to a heaters failure. Shuttle workers traced the issue back to a faulty power distribution box that has since been replaced. "It was no problem to us at all during the count," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Space Operations, at a post-launching news conference.
Endeavour, assembled in Palmdale, Calif., is the youngest vehicle in NASA's shuttle fleet: In 1987, the agency was officially authorized to build the orbiter to replace Challenger, which a year earlier exploded 73 seconds after liftoff and killed all seven astronauts aboard. Construction was completed in 1990. It first launched in 1992.
The orbiter will end up as a museum piece at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
"As we look toward a bright future with the International Space Station as our anchor and new destinations in deep space on the horizon, we salute the astronauts and ground crews who have ensured the orbiter's successful missions," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement, adding "[t]he presence of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the launch inspired us all.”
The final shuttle mission STS-135, to be flown by Atlantis, is scheduled for a July liftoff.
Following the orbiters' retirement, NASA will rely on Russia's Soyuz capsules to transport astronauts to the space station, which will stay in operation at least until 2020. However, the agency expects U.S. commercial companies will be able to supply much of that crew transportation starting sometime later this decade.