CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. – The successful launch of NASA's shuttle Endeavour late Wednesdaywas a textbook example of U.S. spaceflight, the agency's top official said asthe orbiter's astronaut crew circled the Earth.
"Thelaunch operation doesn't get any better than this, it really can't," NASAchief Michael Griffin said of the space shot just before sundown.
A stubbornshuttle hatch, a small crack in external tank insulation and some fallingdebris during Endeavour's ascent were all minor issues that didnot preclude liftoff, mission managers said during a post-launch briefinghere at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
The$2.2-billion orbiter carried teacher-turned-astronautBarbara Morgan and the rest of the seven-person STS-118 crew into space at 6:36:42p.m. (2236:42 GMT) on a construction flight to the International Space Station(ISS).
The launchended a 22-year wait to reach space for Morgan, who originally served as thebackup for New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe during NASA's Teacher inSpace program in 1985. NASA's 1986 Challenger accident claimed the lives of McAuliffeand six other astronauts.
"It'salways good to see a friend on orbit," said NASA launch director MikeLeinbach said of Morgan, now working in zero gravity. "I know she's havinga whale of a time right now."
Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Scott Kelly, the seven astronauts aboard Endeavourwill continue construction of the International Space Station (ISS), which isexpected have a mass of 1 million pounds (453,592 kilograms) and rival aU.S. football field in length when complete.
While"class is in session" for the seven astronauts high above the planet,NASA continuesits investigation of alleged alcohol abuse among astronauts prior tolaunch. So far, not a shred of evidence has appeared after sifting throughrecords of the last 10 years, said NASA spokesperson David Mould.
"Wesurely are not perfect and we know it every day," Griffin said of thenegative publicity drawn to the space agency during the past year.
"It'snot a really credible set of charges, but … I take it as myresponsibility to find out," he added. "When something unpleasantcomes up we take it on head-on, we deal with it, and we resolve it."
Griffin saidthat NASA will divulge any information it digs up through record searching andpersonnel interviews. The agency's biggest focus, however, is completing thegrowing ISS before its shuttle program retires in September 2010.
The STS-118crew will play a major role in the completion of the ISS by adding a starboard(S5) truss spacer, delivering fresh cargo and making repairs.
If NASAlaunches between four and five missions each year, Griffin said, astronauts canfinish building the space station before it's too late.
"If wejust stay on plan, we will finish easily," Griffin said, noting that thespace agency has historically launched as many missions yearly.
If timeallows during Endeavour's 11-to-14 day mission, Morgan and other astronauts willparticipate in three educationaldownlinks with U.S. students. The crew has also carried 10 million basilseeds into space, which the crew will return to earth and deliver to schoolsacross the country as part of an engineering design challenge.
In additionto Morgan and Kelly, pilot Charlie Hobaugh and mission specialists TracyCaldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Alvin Drew, Jr. and Canadian astronaut Dave Williamslaunchedinto space aboard Endeavour. Mission planners expect theshuttle to dock at the ISS Friday at 1:53 p.m. EDT (1753 GMT).
NASA is broadcasting Endeavour'sSTS-118 mission live on NASA TV. Clickhere for mission updates and SPACE.com's NASA TV feed.
- VIDEO: Teaching the Future: Teacher-Astronaut Barbara Morgan
- VIDEO: Endeavour's STS-118 Launch Animation
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage