STORY WRITTEN FOR
& USED WITH PERMISSIONPosted: February 8, 2010The 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 pre-dawn show in the program's final planned night launch.Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight NowWith 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 spaceplane 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.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 long 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 spaceplane into the planned preliminary orbit before shutting down at 4:22 a.m."Just got a fantastic view from Long Island of Endeavour on it's way to orbit!" Tom Liverani, a space enthusiast, said in an email. "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 emailed. "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 spacewalkers 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.