Endeavour flight: the NASA shuttle launch that disappeared
Endeavour flight watchers, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were able to watch the picture-perfect NASA shuttle launch Monday for only 12 seconds because of an unusual situation.
The Endeavour flight marks the 25th and final voyage for the shuttle, the youngest shuttle in what once was a four-orbiter fleet. When wheels touch the runway again on June 1, the orbiter will have logged more than 115 million miles in space.
Atlantis, the final orbiter remaining, is expected to make its final NASA shuttle launch in July.
For spectators, including US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, whose husband is commanding the mission and who is recovering from a gunshot wound received in during a January shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., Endeavour's liftoff was as close to a "blink and you'll miss it" launch as they come.
Roughly 12 seconds after the engines ignited, the orbiter vanished into a low-hanging layer of clouds, visible beyond that point only to tracking cameras on the ground at a cloud-free site north of the launch pad, and to an aircraft operated by range-safety officers with the US Air Force.
"It was a fantastic launch," said Michael Moses, who headed the prelaunch mission management team. But "we apologize that the view wasn't the best."
The launch team has rules it must follow regarding permissible launch weather, but those rule don't cover "how long you can watch before the launch goes out of sight," he quipped during a post-launch new conference.
Heater problem fixed
Endeavour originally was slated to begin its trip to the International Space Station on April 29. But the launch team scrubbed the liftoff during the final countdown because a key component related to one of the orbiter's auxiliary power units was misbehaving.
The auxiliary power units run the hydraulic systems that operate landing gear, flight-control-surfaces on the wings and tail, and the gimbals that swivel the shuttle's main engines to provided steering during ascent. The troublesome component was a heater designed to keep the fuel lines to one of the units from freezing while the shuttle is on orbit.