Shuttle Endeavour Blasts Off Toward Space Station
Space shuttle Endeavour races toward space in a shower of clouds and steam from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Credit: NASA/KSC

This story was updated at 11:59 p.m. EST.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The space shuttle Endeavour lit up the nighttime sky above Florida late Friday as it launched seven NASA astronauts on an ambitious orbital renovation project at the International Space Station.

With a mighty roar, Endeavour streaked toward the station under the light of a nearly full moon as it blazed spaceward at 7:55 p.m. EST (0055 Nov. 15 GMT) from a seaside launch pad here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center.

?It?s high time to take home improvement to a new level after 10 years of International Space Station construction,? Endeavour commander Chris Ferguson just before liftoff.

The shuttle is due to arrive at the space station Sunday afternoon carrying a cargo pod filled with new life support equipment - including a recycling system that turns astronaut urine into drinking water - to prime the outpost for the planned leap to double-sized crews next year. Four complicated spacewalks are also set for the mission to clean and grease up an ailing solar array gear.

?It?s an extremely packed mission, but this is an extremely competent crew,? Ferguson said before the flight. ?It?s a lot of mission, but we?re the people to do it.?

Riding spaceward aboard Endeavour with Ferguson are shuttle pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Don Pettit, Steve Bowen, Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper, Shane Kimbrough and Sandra Magnus. The shuttle astronauts plan to miss Thanksgiving while in space, but will be aboard the station to celebrate its 10th anniversary on Nov. 20.

?Good luck, Godspeed and have a happy Thanksgiving on orbit,? NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew minutes before they blasted off.

Magnus is replacing fellow NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff as a member of the station?s three-person crew. Chamitoff has lived aboard the station since June and will return home aboard Endeavour after more than five months in space.

?This is just a stepping stone to the larger bases that we expect to have on the moon and Mars,? Magnus said of the new station gear. She left Earth without completing repairs to her Houston home?s hurricane-damaged roof, but said the house - and hopefully her plants - are in the good hands of friends.

A loose door on the launch pad tower gantry leading to Endeavour?s cabin hatch caused some concern just before liftoff, but mission managers decided the door posed no impact risk to the shuttle and went ahead with the space shot.

Space station renovation

Endeavour astronauts are hauling a host of vital systems to help the space station jump to six-person crews sometime next May.

The centerpiece is the $250 million water recovery system built to collect astronaut urine, sweat condensed out of the station?s atmosphere and other wastewater, then filter it through a seven-step system to turn into clean water for drinking, cooking, oxygen generation or other uses. If it works as planned, the system should be able to recycle about 93 percent of the water put into it and reduce the amount of water delivered to the station each year by about 15,000 pounds (6,803 kg).

?The water that we produce meets or exceeds most municipal water safety standards in the United States,? said Bob Bagdigian, NASA?s project manager for the station?s environment control and life support system at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

NASA chief Michael Griffin said Endeavour?s mission is twofold. The flight will not only deliver and test NASA?s first attempt at a regenerative life support system for human spaceflight, it also includes tricky spacewalks to repair a massive space station gear designed to turn the outpost?s starboard solar wings like a paddlewheel to track the sun. The gear has been damaged by metal shavings from unexpected grinding and spacewalkers hope to clean up the grit and add vital lubrication.

?This is the first time we?ve ever done that and we?ve absolutely got to have it for the future,? NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told SPACE.com of the water recovery system, adding that astronauts need the technology and ability to fix unexpected glitches if they?re ever to fly back to the moon or Mars. ?I look at the two ends of the spectrum that this flight offers and I think how perfect this is.?

Other gear riding up to the station aboard Endeavour are a $19 million second toilet, extra kitchen, two refrigerator-sized bedrooms and the first-ever space cooler that will allow astronauts to have cold drinks. For the last eight years of station occupation, astronauts have had to settle for either lukewarm or hot water.

?So now, instead of warm water after a long day of [spacewalking] they can have chilled water,? said Kevin Engelbert, Endeavour?s launch package manager.

Friday?s nighttime launch marked the start of NASA?s fourth shuttle mission this year - the most since 2002 - and the 124th shuttle flight overall. It is the 27th shuttle mission to the space station and 22nd flight of Endeavour, but the 31st shuttle flight to blast off at night.

Endeavour is slated to land here at the Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 29, though the mission could be extended an extra day to give astronauts more work time in orbit.

?I would almost be surprised if we didn?t get that docked day,? Ferguson said.

NASA is providing live coverage of Endeavour?s launch tonight on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com?s live mission coverage and NASA TV feed.