Space Shuttle Endeavour Soars in Predawn Launch
Space shuttle Endeavour roars off Launch Pad 39A on its STS-130 mission to deliver Tranquility and cupola to the International Space Station. Image
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated in 3:33 p.m. ET.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The space shuttle Endeavour lit up the predawn sky above Florida with a false sunrise early Monday as it soared into orbit like a brilliant, artificial star.

Endeavour roared into space at 4:14 a.m. EST (0914 GMT) from a seaside pad here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center after a one-day delay due to low clouds. The launch was expected to be the last time a NASA shuttle blasted off at night.

?Looks like the weather came together tonight. The vehicle is in great shape and it?s time to go fly,? NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew just before liftoff. ?We wish you good luck, Godspeed, and we?ll see you back here in about two weeks.?

?We?ll see ya in a couple of weeks,? Endeavour commander Geoge Zamka radioed back, thanking the launch team. ?It?s time to go fly.?

?Roger that. Have a great ride,? Leinbach said.

It was the 34th time a space shuttle has launched at night. All of NASA?s four remaining launches are scheduled to lift off during daylight. NASA officials estimated the number of spectators watching Endeavour?s blastoff in the thousands.

Busy mission ahead

Zamka and his five-man, one-woman crew will deliver a brand-new room and an observation deck to the International Space Station during their planned 13-day spaceflight. The shuttle will dock at the station on Wednesday morning at 12:09 a.m. EST (0509 GMT).

The mission is the first of NASA?s five final shuttle missions this year before the space agency retires its aging orbiter fleet in the fall.

Riding aboard Endeavour with Zamka are shuttle pilot Terry Virts and mission specialists Robert Behnken, Kathryn Hire, Nick Patrick and Stephen Robinson. With the exception of Virts ? who is making his first spaceflight ? all are spaceflight veterans.

They did not get a chance to watch the Super Bowl 44 on Sunday, but the game was beamed to the space station for astronauts there to watch, NASA officials said. Former NFL linebacker Johnny Holland of the Green Bay Packers attended Endeavour?s launch, they added.

The shuttle astronauts wore broad smiles as they trekked out to Endeavour before launch. Onlookers shouted and cheered as they headed to the launch pad, calling, ?We love you!? and ?Have a great time!? At the launch pad, the astronauts made some last few phone calls and took photos before boarding Endeavour.

Robinson forgot his flight notebook when he went to the launch pad, but a NASA worker managed to fetch it for him before he launched on the shuttle.

While they?re in space, Endeavour?s crew will be working on an overnight shift and sleeping during the day. The astronauts will go to sleep later this morning and wake up in the early evening to begin the second ?day? of their mission ? one aimed at scanning their heat shield for damage.

NASA spotted several pieces of foam insulation shed from Endeavour?s tank during liftoff, but none appeared to hit the shuttle when they peeled off, mission managers said. Tonight?s inspection, as well as other surveys during the mission, will help engineers determine the health of Endeavour?s heat shield.

Tranquility in space

Endeavour?s crew is delivering a new room called Tranquility and an observation dome called the Cupola that is covered in windows. Three spacewalks and some tricky robotic arm acrobatics are on tap to install the new additions.

?This is a big construction mission,? Robinson said before launch. ?We?re going to go and add not just a new room on the house, but probably the most complex room on the house.?

Named after NASA?s historic Apollo 11 moon base, the Tranquility module is a 24-foot (7.3-meter) long cylinder that is nearly 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide and weighs about 40,000 pounds (18,143 kg). The $382 million module will be the home for the station?s life support, exercise and robotic arm control systems.  

The Cupola is a seven-window observation deck with a huge round central pane that is the largest single window ever to fly in space. The $27.2 million portal will be attached to an Earth-facing side of Tranquility and promises to give astronauts on the station unparalleled views of their home planet and space.

Both Tranquility and the Cupola were built for NASA by the European Space Agency. Their delivery is NASA?s last big construction job for the space station, which will be about 98 percent complete once they?re installed.

The $100 billion space station is the product of 16 different countries and has been under construction since 1998. The new additions were built for NASA by the European Space Agency.

Future uncertain

Endeavour?s launch comes on the heels of last week?s announcement that NASA will cancel its Constellation program responsible for replacing the shuttle fleet with new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets.

President Barack Obama ordered NASA to scrap the program, which aimed to replace the shuttle fleet with new vehicles capable of launching astronauts to orbit and back to the moon, as part of the agency?s 2011 budget request.

The budget request also included funding to extend the International Space Station through at least 2020, support fundamental technology and science research and promised $6 billion over the next five years to spur new commercial spacecraft to launch astronauts.

But shuttle managers described the reaction among NASA workers and engineers as one of shock and angst. NASA chief Charles Bolden told reporters Saturday that he took responsibility for the backlash, and said he didn?t listen to advisors on how to prepare NASA?s work force and members of Congress for the news.

?Was it screwed up? Yes, it was,? Bolden said, adding that he has a tough road ahead to meet with Congress to discuss the budget request. Several members of Congress were on hand to watch Endeavour?s launch.

Bolden, a retired Marine Corps general and former space shuttle commander, also reminded reporters and the public that NASA only has five more shuttle missions ? including this one ? before shutting down the program.

He urged journalists and the members of the public watching Endeavour?s launch to soak in the moment, because NASA?s shuttle era will soon be over. Endeavour?s flight, for example, is due to land on Feb. 20.

?You?re going to have to figure out what else you?re going to do along with the rest of us,? Bolden said.

  • Video - Endeavour's Mission: Space Windows and Rooms
  • Video - Behind the Scenes of Endeavour's STS-130 Mission
  • Images - Space Shuttle's Midnight Launch