CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The space shuttle Endeavour and its astronaut crew roared into space this evening, ending a 22-year wait for teacher-turned-spaceflyer Barbara Morgan.
The successful launch is a milestone not only for Morgan, who served as a backup to Christa McAuliffe prior to the tragic 1986 Challenger mission, but also for Endeavour. NASA technicians spent nearly five years overhauling the orbiter with new hardware and electronics systems.
Endeavour shot the seven STS-118 astronauts toward space at about 6:36:42 p.m. EDT (2236:42 GMT) from Kennedy Space Center's (KSC) Pad 39A to kick off a busy construction flight to the International Space Station. The shuttle is slated to dock at the orbital laboratory Friday at about 1:53 p.m. EDT (1753 GMT).
"Good luck, Godspeed and have some fun up there," NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told shuttle commander Scott Kelly just before liftoff. "Take good care of that great ship Endeavour."
"Thanks Mike, this is serious business we're in here," Kelly said, adding that he was proud of the entire NASA team for readying Endeavour for flight. "We'll see you in a couple weeks and thank you for loaning us shuttle."
In addition to Morgan and Kelly, STS-118 pilot Charlie Hobaugh and mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Alvin Drew, Jr. and Dave Williams - of the Canadian Space Agency - launched into orbit aboard Endeavour.
Their planned 11-day mission will deliver 5,000 pounds (2,267 kilograms) of cargo, spare parts and new hardware to the ISS. The spaceflight may also be extended three extra days pending the success of a new station-to-shuttle power transfer system.
"I think we're all going to say 'Woohoo!' and then get back to work," Morgan said of reaching orbit before Wednesday's launch.
A family matter
Morgan said her journey from teacher to astronaut has been emotionally difficult, and that thoughts of the Challenger's STS-51L crew never leave her mind.
"I think about Christa and the Challenger crew about every day," Morgan said during a preflight interview. "That’s just something I carry with me. I know how painful this is for folks who were really close."
June Scobee Rodgers, who was married to astronaut Dick Scobee when he died aboard Challenger, said she admires Morgan for her strength.
"Barbara Morgan is an example of passion, patience and persistence. The Challenger crew were her best friends," Rodgers said of the astronaut. "And she was assigned as an astronaut educator when we lost Columbia, so she lost another crew of seven best friends. She so humble and modest, yet she still goes about her life with enthusiasm."
Juliet Sisk, a 7th-grade science teacher at Space Coast High School in Florida, said Morgan is more than an example.
"She is a hero to all teachers," Sisk said. "She's shown educators and students that there's no limit to how high they can aim."
Morgan plans to hold at least one, and possibly up to three, interactive video events with students on Earth during her shuttle mission. She is also carrying 10 million basil seeds and two plant growth chambers into space as part of her educational program.
The months leading up to Endeavour's launch have been turbulent for NASA, which has seen a former astronaut's arrest, a murder-suicide at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston and — most recently — allegations that spaceflyers have flown at least twice while intoxicated.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin said the events have been distracting, but the agency is doing what it can to investigate its culture.
"I can't guarantee the behavior of 100,000 people," Griffin told SPACE.com of NASA's workforce.
So far, NASA spokesperson David Mould said today, a health review issued by the space agency and conducted by a panel of health experts has not revealed any evidence to support the allegations of alcohol-related abuses among astronauts.
"I must admit I would be surprised … if we had any astronaut boarding the shuttle under the influence," Griffin said.
Astronaut Patrick Forrester, who flew as a mission specialist aboard the shuttle Atlantis during NASA's STS-117 spaceflight in June, expects investigators to find no foul play.
"I don't think they'll find anything other than a professional, hard-working group of people," Forrester said of the investigation.
Constructing the future
In spite of the allegations centered on the space agency's astronaut corps, Griffin said the space program is moving along well.
"In the end, we're judged on our execution of spaceflight missions and we've been having a great year in regard to spaceflight missions," Griffin said. He added that if the space agency's current pace of four to five shuttle flights each year should be adequate to complete the space station.
"If we can maintain that average for the next few years, we'll easily get it done," Griffin said.
The STS-118 mission will be the second ISS construction flight of the year. The spaceflight marks NASA's 119th shuttle mission, the 22nd bound for the station and the 20th trip to space for Endeavour itself.
Launch came after engineers wrangled Endeavour's stubborn shuttle hatch shut and analyzed a small, shallow crack in foam insulation near base of the orbiter's external fuel tank. Even in the worst-case scenario, the analysis team determined the crack's formation posed no risk to the Endeavour, shuttle fuel tank officials said.
Once at the ISS, Endeavour's crew will install the small Starboard 5 (S5) spacer truss to the station's starboard-most edge to make room for a new set of solar panels due to launch next year. Other tasks include replacing a broken gyroscope and hooking up a spare parts platform.
"I think the building of the International Space Station is one of the greatest engineering accomplishments in the history of mankind," Mastracchio told SPACE.com before today's planned launch. "It's one of the seven wonders in space, that's for sure."
NASA is broadcasting Endeavour's STS-118 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's NASA TV feed.