Successful Launch for Space Shuttle Endeavour
The shuttle Endeavour ignited the darkened Florida skies early today, as the winged ship raced into orbit on a pillar of fiery exhaust to begin a marathon assembly mission at the international space station.
The shuttle and a crew of seven astronauts thundered away from the Kennedy Space Center at 1:28 a.m. CDT, climbing steeply on a northerly course that hugged much of the U.S. East Coast.
Endeavour carries the first piece of Japan’s near $1 billion Kibo science module and a $209 million Canadian robot named Dextre. The addition of the Japanese hardware, a storage chamber for power equipment and research gear for the actual lab, will cement an international lineup at the orbital base that already includes contributions from Europe, Russia, Canada and the United States.
“Good luck and God speed,” NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told Endeavour commander Dom Gorie as the final minutes of the countdown ticked down.
“Let’s light them up and give them a show,” Gorie responded.
Moments after its departure, the spacecraft pierced a thin cloud layer along the Florida coast as the astronauts rocketed away.
Today’s launch kicked off a 16-day mission, the longest of the 25 shuttle station assembly flights flown to date.
Endeavour was on course to reach the orbital outpost late Wednesday. Over a 12-day visit, the Endeavour astronauts plan five spacewalks, matching the most carried out on a single shuttle flight.
Gorie’s crew includes pilot Gregory H. Johnson; a spacewalking team led by Rick Linnehan that includes Garrett Reisman, Bob Behnken and Mike Foreman. Japanese astronaut Takao Doi will lead the checkout of the new module.
Reisman will move aboard the station and remain until June. He replaces French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who accompanied the delivery of the European Columbus science module in February.
During the first spacewalk, which will get under way late Thursday, the astronauts intend to hoist the 4-ton Japanese experiment logistics module from Endeavour with the shuttle’s robot arm and attach the compartment to the station. The outing will also initiate the assembly of Dextre. The 12-foot-tall robot that was designed by Canadian engineers to take over some of the space station maintenance duties currently assigned to spacewalking astronauts.
Dextre’s assembly will take three outings.
The mission’s spacewalk agenda is aggressive but achievable, according NASA astronaut Steve Robinson, who carried out three spacewalks on a 2005 shuttle mission, his third.
“We are at the point in the space station program where we can mount a mission this complex and this extensive and have a lot of confidence we will do OK,” said Robinson. “I don’t think we are stepping out of bounds by any means, but we are certainly expanding our envelope.”
The work, though, is demanding.
“It’s like working out in a gym all day while you are playing in a chess tournament. When you you’re through, you are physcially fatigued, mentally fatigued,” said Robinson. “It’s one of the most taxing and satisfying things I’ve ever done.”
Endeavour’s astronauts begin their voyage working a swing shift. After heading to bed this morning, the astronauts will awaken just after 3 p.m. CDT to start their first full day in orbit.
They will spend it sweeping the heat shielding on the shuttle’s wings and nose with a camera and laser-tipped inspection boom in search of damage from the liftoff.
NASA plans to follow Endeavour’s mission with the late May launch of the shuttle Discovery, which will deliver the boxcar-sized Japanese science module in which astronauts can conduct a wide range of biology and physics experiments.
The final pieces of the Japanese laboratory are headed for delivery in spring 2009. They include an external platform for science experiments and a robot arm.
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