KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. On its second attempt, Space Shuttle Endeavour thundered off the launch pad early Monday (Feb. 8) on a 13-day mission to deliver and install the last major component of the International Space Station along with an Italian-made cupola that will give astronauts a panoramic view of the Earth.
Space Shuttle Endeavour "hauls the mail" to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
The six-member Endeavour crew commanded by George Zamka, a Marine Corps colonel making his second Shuttle flight, will dock with the Space Station on Wednesday. The 130th U.S. Shuttle flight (STS-130) includes three spacewalks to prepare the new node and make necessary connections. The crew will also tackle some plumbing chores aboard the Space Station.
The final nighttime Shuttle launch marks the beginning of the end of the orbital program that began in 1981. Only four more flights remain before the Shuttle fleet is retired in September. For the next several years, NASA will rely on a Russian Soyuz ferry service to supply the Space Station and transport replacement crews.
After a one-day weather delay, the Endeavour crew looked primed for the launch while boarding a van that transported them to Pad 39A about three hours prior to the pre-dawn launch, which lit up the night sky for miles up and down the Florida coast. Zamka was relaxed, joking with the crowd of photographers before climbing aboard the transport van. Robert Cabana, Kennedy Space Center director, was also present to send off the crew.
Besides Zamka, Endeavour's crew includes: Shuttle pilot Terry Virts, an Air Force colonel making his first flight; mission specialist Kay Hire, a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the first NASA employee to advance to the Astronauts Office; Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Behnken, a mission specialist; and civilian mission specialists Steve Robinson and Nicholas Patrick.
NASA said Behnken and Patrick will perform the first spacewalk on Friday to begin connecting the 23-foot-long Tranquility Node to the Space Station. The new node will provide additional space for life support and environmental control systems, including water recycling.
Two additional spacewalks will be used to install ammonia plumbing connections between the Unity and Tranquility nodes that provide cooling. The Earth-facing side of the new node will be prepared during the second spacewalk in advance of installing the seven-pane bay window, the space agency said.
The Tranquility Node was built by Thales Alenia Space (Turin, Italy) under contract to the European Space Agency.
While providing spectacular views of the Earth, William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said the cupola will provide astronauts much better views during future docking maneuvers.
Gerstenmaier reported after the successful launch that preliminary analysis showed that a foot-long piece of foam insulation broke loose from the Shuttle's large external fuel tank. "We see no damage on the orbiter," he said.
The cause of the 2003 Columbia accident was traced to foam that broke loose during the launch and breaching the Shuttle's thermal protection system. NASA officials said they had gathered extensive data on foam loss during Monday's launch.
With the Shuttle launch from Pad 39A on a brisk Florida night, a future destination for astronauts, Mars, shone bright and faintly red directly over the scene. How and when mankind will again leave Earth orbit and resume manned exploration of the solar system remains a hot topic here. Coinciding with the end of the Shuttle program is a growing debate about how to proceed with development of a Saturn V-like heavy launcher that NASA administrator Charles Bolden said over the weekend here will be used to send humans back the moon, asteroids and Mars.
Under the most optimistic scenarios, such flights will not commence until after 2020.