The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour blasted off into space today to deliver a potentially revolutionary physics experiment to the International Space Station on the next-to-last flight in NASA’s shuttle program.
Spacecraft Endeavour’s 25th and final voyage was expected to reach the orbital outpost on Wednesday. NASA plans one more mission to the station, using the sister shuttle Atlantis, in July, before phasing out the shuttle programme.
With six veteran astronauts strapped inside, Endeavour roared off its seaside launch pad at 8:56 a.m. (1256 GMT) when Earth rotated into position to optimally align the shuttle with the space station flying 220 miles (354 km) above the planet.
NASA tried to launch Endeavour on April 29 but stopped the countdown after a heater in one of the shuttle’s onboard power generators failed.
Technicians traced the problem to a short circuit in an electronics box that apparently was caused by the heater’s thermostat, which had been inadvertently damaged during a routine test, said shuttle mission manager Mike Moses.
The Endeavour mission is being led by Mark Kelly, a four-time shuttle veteran who is married to convalescent U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
The Arizona Democrat is recovering from a January 8 assassination attempt that killed six people and injured 12 others. She was at Kennedy Space Centre to watch Endeavour’s launch.
The shuttle carries the US$2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector, which is designed to analyze cosmic rays for fingerprints of dark matter, antimatter and other phenomena undetectable by traditional telescopes.
The instrument, built by a consortium of 60 research agencies in 16 countries, is expected to sift through 25,000 cosmic ray hits a second and operate for at least the next 10 years while attached to the outside of the space station.
The shuttle also carries a pallet of spare parts to tide over the station after the shuttle program ends this summer. Endeavour is due back on June 1.
The 135th and final shuttle launch is scheduled for early- to mid-July aboard Atlantis. It will deliver a year’s worth of supplies to the international space station.
NASA is ending the 30-year-old shuttle program due to high operating costs and to develop spaceships that can travel to asteroids, Mars and other destinations where the shuttles cannot go.
After the shuttles are retired, Russia will operate the only crew flights to the space station until private firms are able to fly people into orbit, which is expected to take four to five years. NASA is turning over cargo flights to the station to two commercial operators
As NASA workers ramped up for Endeavour’s launch on the 134th shuttle mission, prime contractor United Space Alliance mailed out layoff notices to half of its employees.
“The mood is a little bit downcast right now but I have no worries at all about the team being able to make the right calls on Monday,” said NASA launch director Mike Leinbach.
United Space Alliance is a joint venture equally owned by Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.