KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The shuttle Endeavour, carrying six astronauts, a 15-ton life support module, and a bay window observation deck for the International Space Station, thundered into orbit early Monday, putting on a spectacular predawn show in the program's final planned night launch.
With commander George Zamka and pilot Terry Virts at the controls, Endeavour's three main engines ignited with a rush of fiery exhaust and quickly throttled up to full power. Seconds later, at 4:14:07 a.m. EST, the shuttle's twin solid-fuel boosters fired, explosive bolts detonated, and the space plane vaulted away from pad 39A.
A launch attempt Sunday was called off due to low clouds over the Kennedy Space Center, but the weather cooperated for the second attempt. While low clouds caused concern early in the countdown, they thinned out as launch time approached and managers cleared the shuttle for flight.
Majestically wheeling about to line up on a northeasterly trajectory, Endeavour was visible for hundreds of miles around as it climbed skyward atop twin jets of 5,000-degree flame, giving area residents and tourists a breathtaking show as the shuttle began the first of the program's final five flights.
Live television views from a camera mounted on the side of the ship's external tank showed what appeared to be a relatively large piece of foam insulation falling from the tank about two minutes into flight. Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of NASA's space flight operations, said the debris did not appear to strike the shuttle's heat shield.
"At about two minutes, we saw a piece of intertank stringer foam come off," he said. "It's probably about a quarter-inch thick, maybe about a foot or so long. It didn't appear to impact the orbiter and we see no damage to the orbiter. It's something similar to what we've seen before."
As with all post-Columbia shuttle flights, engineers will study the on-board and ground-based imagery over the next few days to verify the condition of the heat shield.
Endeavour's huge boosters appeared to perform normally, separating as planned about two minutes and five seconds after blastoff. The shuttle's hydrogen-fueled main engines continued firing for another six-and-a-half minutes, boosting the space plane into the planned preliminary orbit before shutting down at 4:22 a.m.
"Just got a fantastic view from Long Island of Endeavour on its way to orbit!" Tom Liverani, a space enthusiast, said in an e-mail. "Was able to see approximately 30 seconds of powered flight. Unbelievable sight!"
Gerry Haas spotted Endeavour from Abington, Mass., as it neared the end of the climb to orbit.
"Saw last 20 seconds of powered flight then another 30 seconds of RCS (maneuvering jet firings) as they were getting off tank," Haas e-mailed. "Always so cool to see it launch on TV and then step out and see it fly by eight minutes later."
Zamka, Virts and their crewmates--Kathryn Hire, flight engineer Stephen Robinson, and space walkers Robert Behnken and Nicholas Patrick--faced a busy first few hours in space, doffing their bulky pressure suits and rigging Endeavour's systems for orbital flight.
The primary goal of the mission is the delivery and installation of the Tranquility module and a seven-pane cupola that promises spectacular bay window views of Earth and approaching spacecraft.
Tranquility will be attached to the left side of the station's central Unity module, providing a home for life support equipment, exercise gear, and a toilet, all currently housed elsewhere in the station.
The astronauts also will deliver replacement hardware to overhaul the lab's water recycling system, the complex equipment that turns sweat and urine into ultra-pure water for drinking, crew hygiene, and oxygen generation. The system has been out of action in recent weeks because of higher-than-expected calcium concentrations in a critical distillation assembly.
To give that system time to operate and assess its performance before Endeavour departs, the crew plans to delay moving the life-support systems into the new module, possibly extending the flight by one day. If that is not possible, the life support racks will be installed by the station crew after the shuttle undocks.
"Currently, we have a lot of those life support racks spread throughout the station and they're in the locations where crew members are either doing scientific experiments or exercising or eating," said Zamka. "The volume in which they're doing all that is fairly small.
"Once those racks have been moved into Tranquility, they will be out of the laboratory spaces so the labs can be for science and Tranquility will become the home for the water regeneration system, the atmospheric revitalization system and those things. And also exercise....So that's a big change for the astronauts."
The other major addition--the multiwindow cupola--will improve the quality of life aboard the station. Full-time crew members now have sleep stations and Internet access. With Endeavour's mission, they will get a bay window on the world.
Along with providing a home for a robot arm work station, the cupola will let the crew "look outside," Zamka said. "It'll be kind of a hemispheric place where they can look out and see tremendous views of the Earth."
Over the next two days, Zamka and Virts will carry out a series of rendezvous rocket firings to catch up with the International Space Station. Docking at the forward end of the lab complex is expected around 12:53 a.m. Wednesday.
Tranquility, also known as node 3, was built by Thales Alenia Space of Italy. It is scheduled for attachment to the station during the crew's first spacewalk overnight Thursday. Two additional spacewalks by Behnken and Patrick are planned to connect long ammonia coolant lines and to outfit the cupola, launched on one end of the new module and then moved to its permanent location on Tranquility's Earth-facing port.
Going into the flight, NASA planners do not assume a mission extension. As such, Endeavour is scheduled to undock Feb. 18 and to land back at the Kennedy Space Center around 10:01 p.m. two days later. If the flight is extended, those dates would slip accordingly.