Monday, February 08, 2010

Endeavour Launches on Station Construction Flight

A new decade of space flight began this morning as the weather along America's space coast cleared and the space shuttle Endeavour lifted-off on a construction flight to the International Space Station.

Low clouds over the launch pad here at the Kennedy Space Center gave the launch control team the only concern as a second flawless countdown attempt marched along with no technical issues worked.

Basked in brilliant white xenon lights, Endeavour's main engines fired and it's twin rocket boosters came to life pushing NASA's 130th space shuttle flight up and into a cold, dark Florida sky.

Endeavour's twenty-fourth mission into space began at 4:14:08 am EST, this morning to begin a thirteen day flight to add new living quarters to the nearly completed space station.

It likely will be NASA's last night launch in the space shuttle program. Only four flights remain in the programs future.

Lift-off weight of the entire space shuttle stack was 4,521,961 pounds; of that 267,470 pounds was the weight of Endeavour and her on board payloads.

As Endeavour lept from her seaside launch pad, the space station was flying 212 miles over western Romania.

Just over two minutes into the launch, Endeavour's rocket boosters separated from the sides of the orange external fuel tank having emptied their solid fuel and boosting the orbiter to an altitude of 34 miles.

It was at just prior to booster separation that engineers spotted something fall off the ship's external tank.

"We saw a piece of inter tank stringer foam come off," stated NASA's chief of space flight operations Bill Gerstenmaier. "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 Endeavour's main engines continued to drive the space craft in a northeastern direction up the U.S. eastern coastline, the ship's twin smaller engines fired for a brief time to give the heavy craft an added boost.

Seven minutes later, at 4:22:31 am, the orbiter was in a low earth orbit, shut down it's main engines and jettisoned it's huge external tank while flying off the Novia Scotia coast at an altitude of 84 miles.

The crew of six --
commander George Zamka, pilot Terry Virts, and mission specialists Nicholas Patrick, Robert Behnken, Stephen Robinson and Kathryn Hire -- will spend overnight Monday inspecting the orbiter's heat shield and looking for any tile damage which may have occurred at launch.

Hire is a native of Mobile, AL (my hometown) and was a KSC space shuttle technician for several years in the 1980's.

Endeavour's crew will then dock to the space station on Wednesday morning at 12:09 am EST, as the orbital duo passes over northern Spain.

Three spacewalks and a lot of robotics will then take place as both Endeavour's crew and the five member crew of station will work together to remove the Tranquility node and cupola section from the shuttle's payload bay and over to it's docking port on station.

Endeavour's crew are delivering the final American modules to the International Space Station -- the Italian-built Tranquility module and a 360-degree seven window cupola compartment.

Astronauts Behnken and Patrick will begin the first of three spacewalks on Feb. 11 at 9:09 pm. The six and one-half hour planned orbital walk will focus on getting Tranquility ready to be installed on the space station's Unity node. They will be disconnecting the Tranquility cables which will be connected to Endeavour's payload bay; and remove eight flight covers from the docking port of Tranquility.

Two hours into the midnight spacewalk, robotic arm operator Hire will unberth Tranquility from the orbiter at 10:49 pm, and slowly move it over for docking to Unity. Once docked to Unity's left (port) side, the spacewalkers will begin connecting several heating and avionics cables to the new module.

On Friday night (Feb. 12), both the space station and Endeavour's commanders will open the hatch at 9:14 pm and enter the new Tranquility module for the first time. Due to lack of lights, the crews will enter using headset flashlights.

Endeavour is expected to return home to the Space Coast on Feb. 20 at 10:01 pm, following 13 days in space.

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