NASA's Shuttle Endeavour Returns to Launch Pad
NASA's space shuttle Endeavour reaches the launch pad early Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparations for the August 2007 launch of the STS-118 mission.
Credit: NASA TV.

NASA?s space shuttle Endeavour returned to the launch pad for the first time in nearly five years, making the overnight trek from its Florida hangar to prepare for a planned Aug. 7 liftoff.

The shuttle reached Launch Pad 39A at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral at about 2:30 a.m. EDT (0630 GMT) after a just over six-hour journey to cover the 3.4-mile (5.4-kilometer) stretch from the Florida spaceport?s cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building.

NASA is priming Endeavour for an Aug. 7 launch to continue assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) during an up to 14-day mission. The spaceflight will mark Endeavour?s first since late 2002, after which NASA pulled the orbiter aside for a planned overhaul.

?Just the fact that this thing has been down for so long, they?ve had a chance to do a whole lot of good work on it,? STS-118 mission specialist Alvin Drew told before the shuttle?s rollout. ?It?s, you know, the shuttle with that new car smell again.?

Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Scott Kelly, Endeavour?s STS-118 mission will deliver about 5,000 pounds (2,267 kilograms) of cargo, a spare parts platform and new ISS gyroscope and a starboard-side spacer for the station?s main truss to the ISS. The shuttle?s cargo reached the Pad 39A Sunday, NASA said.

Endeavour was slated to start rolling out to the launch pad late Tuesday at about 10:00 p.m. EDT (020 July 11 GMT) after a one-day delay due to lightning, but was actually able to begin the slow trip atop its massive crawler carrier vehicle at about 8:10 p.m. EDT (001 July 11 GMT), NASA spokesperson Bill Johnson said at KSC.

The shuttle?s seven-astronaut STS-118 crew also includes educator-turned-spaceflyer Barbara Morgan, who first joined NASA?s ranks more than 20 years ago to serve as backup for schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe during NASA?s Teacher in Space program. McAuliffe and her six crewmates died during NASA?s 1986 Challenger accident.

?I?m really excited about going up and doing our jobs and doing them well,? Morgan said in a NASA interview, adding that McAuliffe?s legacy will last well beyond the STS-118 flight.

During its years-long systems overhaul, Endeavour received a new power transfer system that will allow the orbiter to draw on ISS supplies--rather than its own limited stores--while docked at the orbital laboratory. The new Station-Shuttle Power Transfer System could lengthen Endeavour?s initial 11-day flight by up to three days to allow an extra spacewalk to the three excursions already planned at the ISS, mission managers have said.

Endeavour also sports a new avionics system, new windows and will be the first to actively use an advanced health monitoring system to watch over its three main engines during liftoff, NASA said. Among other improvements, engineers replaced some 2,500 of the orbiter?s heat-resistant tiles, and tested each of its 1,900 thermal blankets to ensure they were secured tightly.

?This has got some great upgrades,? Matt Abbott, NASA?s lead STS-118 shuttle flight director said Tuesday during a briefing here at the Johnson Space Center. ?But really all the shuttles are fantastic flying machines.?

Endeavour?s STS-118 mission will mark the second shuttle flight of the year following last month?s successful STS-117 spaceflight, which ferried a new crewmember and starboard solar arrays to the ISS aboard the Atlantis orbiter.

NASA hopes to launch up to four shuttle flights in 2007 to continue assembly of the ISS. The shuttle Discovery is slated to haul the new Harmony connecting node to the station in late October and be followed by a December flight of Atlantis to deliver the European-built Columbus laboratory.

?It?s exciting to see the hardware come together and to see all the planning come together for the launch next month,? Drew said, lauding the KSC shuttle worker?s efforts to update and prepare Endeavour. ?They?re ready to put it back into space. And we?re ready to fly it too."

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