The flight is the 25th and final one for the spacecraft Endeavor, which was expected to reach the orbital outpost on Wednesday. NASA plans one more mission to the station, using the sister shuttle Atlantis, in July, before ending the shuttle program.
Endeavor’s last mission is being commanded by Mark Kelly, a four-time shuttle veteran who is married to U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from a January 8 assassination attempt that killed six people and injured 12 others.
Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, watched the launch with the families of the Endeavor crew in a private area at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She said “good stuff” as the shuttle soared through the sky, a spokeswoman said. “I think relief was her biggest feeling,” said Pia Carusone, Gifford’s chief of staff. (Reuters) As the weather Monday morning improved, “she got very excited ‘cause it looked like it was a go,” Ms. Carusone said at a news conference. (New York Times) Doctors were satisfied enough with her recovery to allow her to travel to Kennedy to see her husband’s departure. After the lift-off there were celebratory hugs all around. Ms. Giffords was to return to Houston later in the afternoon.
With Kelly and five other veteran astronauts aboard, Endeavor roared off its seaside launch pad at 8:56 a.m. and quickly disappeared into the clouds, giving about 500,000 spectators on central Florida’s Atlantic coast a brief view.
“We don’t have any flight rules that dictate how long you can see the launch before it goes out of sight,” Mike Moses, the head of NASA’s mission management team, said jokingly. “I apologize that the view wasn’t the best.” (Reuters) “We had the clouds where we needed them, so we went,” Mr. Moses said. (New York Times)
“This mission represents the power of teamwork, commitment and exploration,” Kelly said in a radio call to launch controllers moments before lift-off. “It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop.” (BBC) “To all the millions watching today including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support,” he added. (CBC)
Endeavor carries the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector, which is designed to analyze cosmic rays for fingerprints of dark matter, antimatter and other phenomena undetectable by traditional telescopes. The instrument, built by a consortium of 60 research agencies in 16 countries, is expected to sift through 25,000 cosmic ray hits a second and operate for at least the next 10 years while attached to the outside of the space station. The shuttle also carries a pallet of spare parts to tide over the station after the shuttle program ends this summer.
NASA had hoped Endeavor would be back from its final space mission by now, but the first launch attempt on April 29 was scuttled after a heater in one of the ship’s hydraulic power generators failed. The flight is the 134th in shuttle history. “She’s got a lot of life left in her but that’s not meant to be,” launch director Mike Leinbach said of Endeavor’s last mission. (Reuters) “It was an outstanding countdown,” said Leinbach at a post-launch news conference. “Endeavor’s on orbit safely. [It’s a] great day here at the Kennedy Space Center.” (CBC)
“Today’s final launch of Endeavor is a testament to American ingenuity and leadership in human spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “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. The presence of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the launch inspired us all, just as America’s space program has done for the past 50 years.” (BBC)
The shuttles are being retired due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop spaceships that can travel beyond the station’s orbit. The shuttle Discovery completed its final mission in March.
Russian and European freighters will keep the space station stocked with food, water and supplies in the immediate future. NASA also has hired two commercial companies, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp, to fly cargo to the station. The firms are expected to begin deliveries to the orbiting outpost next year.
Crew transportation will be handled solely by Russia until U.S. companies develop the capabilities. Then NASA wants to buy fight services, rather than develop and operate its own fleet to ferry astronauts to the station.
British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic affiliate is testing the world’s first commercial sub-orbital spaceship, was among those who watched Monday’s launch. “I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship waiting to be dropped from the mother ship and heading off into space,” Branson said. (Reuters)
Endeavor, which first flew in 1992 and is the youngest of NASA’s shuttles, was commissioned as a replacement for Challenger, the shuttle destroyed in a 1986 launch accident that killed seven astronauts.
The shuttle is due to return to the Kennedy Space Center on June 1. After landing, Endeavor will go on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Discovery is promised to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and Atlantis will spend its retirement in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.