Endeavour launch: NASA shuttle heads for space station
NASA's space shuttle Endeavour launched successfully early Monday morning. The shuttle is headed to install a major module at the International Space Station.
There, astronauts will deliver and install the last major module planned for the station, a node named Tranquility. It will become the station's utility and exercise room. Its unique, seven-window cupola will become a control center for tasks requiring the station's robotic arm.
The cupola also will serve as an occasional picture window, giving astronauts stunning views of Earth from their orbiting perch some 220 miles above the planet.
It was the shuttle program's last night launch. For people at the Kennedy Space Center, weather conditions and the shuttle's ascent path allowed viewers to watch the orbiter's rise for a full seven minutes before the shuttle disappeared from sight as it passed over Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Over eastern New England, the orbiter shared the sky with a rising crescent moon. Endeavour appeared as fast-moving, erratically winking dot of orange light as the orbiter's main engines neared their planned shutdown.
Endeavour is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Wednesday. That follows a day of inspections. These ensure that the tiles protecting the underside of the spaceship from the searing heat of reentry are unscathed by any debris the shuttle's external fuel tank sheds during launch.
Since the Columbia shuttle tragedy in 2003, which was triggered by foam insulation ripping away from the tank and damaging the orbiter's thermal protection system, NASA has gone to great lengths to minimize the amount of material the tank sheds during the orbiter's ascent.
Cameras on the orbiter's solid-rocket motors captured two or three instances of foam loss during Monday's ascent, mission managers said at a post-launch briefing. A quick initial analysis suggested no damage to the orbiter. Tuesday’s inspection, which uses sensors on the end of a special extension to the shuttle's robotic arm, will give engineers the more-detailed information they need to determine whether the shuttle's tiles sustained any damage.
A successful mission also puts a "paid in kind" stamp next to the European Space Agency's (ESA) account in the ISS ledger. Tranquility and the cupola technically are US facilities. But they were built in Europe as payment for NASA's delivery of Europe's Columbus laboratory module to the station in February 2008. ESA spent some 300 million Euros (roughly $400 million) on the module and cupola, according to the agency's space-station program manager, Bernardo Patti.
Indeed, 2010 will be a busy year for ESA as a space-station partner. Two of the agency's astronauts will be visiting the station at various times during the year – one for a six-month tour aboard the orbiting outpost. And Europe will launch the second of its robotic cargo carriers to the station, according Jean-Jacques Dordain, the agency's director-general.
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