Shuttle Endeavour Chasing Space Station in Orbit
Endeavour's onboard camera shows the external fuel tank falling away following launch on May 16, 2011.
Credit: NASA TV

NASA's shuttle Endeavour is headed for the International Space Station to deliver a major space experiment and other supplies. But before Endeavour arrives, its six-astronaut crew must scan their vital heat shield for any dings it may have picked up during the shuttle's Monday launch.

Endeavour launched toward the space station yesterday (May 16) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a spectacular morning liftoff that began the shuttle's final mission before it is retired later this year along with the rest of NASA's fleet. [Photos of Space Shuttle Endeavour's Final Launch]

"It's good to be waking up in space again," Endeavour's commander Mark Kelly said as Mission Control roused his crew in the wee hours today with the song "Beautiful Day" by U2. The song was picked for Kelly by his daughters Claudia and Claire, and his wife Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head during a January attack but recovered enough to watch her husband soar into space yesterday morning. [Giffords Says Shuttle Launch Was "Good Stuff"]

"I want to thank Gabby, Claudia and Claire for that great wakeup song. It's always good to hear," Kelly added. "Here's to a beautiful day in space!"

Endeavour is flying a 16-day mission to the International Space Station to deliver and install a sophisticated cosmic ray detector, called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and a slew of supplies for the orbiting outpost. The shuttle is due to arrive at the station Wednesday (May 18) at around 6:15 a.m. EDT (1015 GMT).

Space shuttle Endeavour appears to fly past flags in the foreground, on its way to the International Space Station. Launch of the STS-134 mission took place at 8:56 a.m. EDT on May 16.
Space shuttle Endeavour appears to fly past flags in the foreground, on its way to the International Space Station. Launch of the STS-134 mission took place at 8:56 a.m. EDT on May 16.
Credit: collectSPACE.com/Robert Z. Pearlman

Heat shield inspection on tap

Kelly and his crew awoke at 11:56 p.m. EDT Monday night (0356 Tuesday GMT) and have a busy day of spacecraft inspections ahead. The astronauts will use the space shuttle robotic arm to closely examine the heat shield panels along the shuttle's wing edges and nose cap for any signs of damage from falling debris during launch.

Heat shield surveys have been a standard part of every NASA shuttle flight since the tragic 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew. NASA traced the disaster to a piece of foam insulation that fell from Columbia's fuel tank and struck the shuttle's heat shield along its left wing.

Since then, NASA has kept a close watch on shuttle heat shield health during missions. Several inspections, by robotic arms and cameras, are performed on each flight.

Shortly after Endeavour's launch, NASA officials said cameras on the shuttle's external tank showed two small pieces of foam shaking loose during the ascent, but that the incidents were not likely to be a problem. [Endeavour's Lift-off into History]

"Those were very small losses, they didn’t look like they went anywhere near the orbiter," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations. "Those looked like they're no problem to us at all. The tank performance was probably better than I expected."

Endeavour's crewmembers will use sensors on a 50-foot (15-meter) inspection pole attached to the end of the shuttle's robotic arm to inspect the spacecraft. Images and video will be subsequently be relayed to NASA's mission control center in Houston for engineering review. [Photos: Shuttle Endeavour's Final Mission]

This picture, taken at an altitude of about 64,000 feet by a balloon launched as part of a student project, shows NASA's space shuttle Endeavour streaking toward space on its final STS-134 mission.
This picture, taken at an altitude of about 64,000 feet by a balloon launched as part of a student project, shows NASA's space shuttle Endeavour streaking toward space on its final STS-134 mission.
Credit: QuestForStars.com/Challenger Center/Coalition for Space Exploration

Endeavour's final voyage

Endeavour lit up the morning sky Monday (May 16) when it lifted off at 8:56 a.m. EDT from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"The vehicle looked very good going uphill," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations.

Endeavour's STS-134 flight is the second-to-last mission of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program and is the 25th spaceflight of Endeavour itself. The agency has one final mission – Atlantis' STS-135 flight in July – before the three-orbiter fleet is retired.

You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of Endeavour's final mission STS-134 or follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.