KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—The space shuttle Endeavour took off on its final flight Monday morning at 8:56 A.M. Eastern time. The takeoff came after a nail-biting final hour as technicians had to do some last-minute repairs to the shuttle’s heat tiles and clouds filled the sky above Cape Canaveral. In fact, Endeavour blasted off into the clouds, blocking view of its full path to spectators on the ground, but creating an eerie circular glow in the sky. The main engines fired for eight and a half minutes, putting the orbiter on a suborbital flight, awaiting a subsequent burn by smaller engines to put the spacecraft into orbit.
Endeavour‘s first liftoff attempt had to be scrubbed on April 29 because of what amounted to a blown fuse. Engineers never were able to trace what caused it, and to play it safe they replaced the wiring and thermostats controlled by the fuse. During launch preparations, engineers tested the heaters where the problem had first surfaced to make sure all was well.
Monday’s was not the last shuttle mission—that honor will go to Atlantis in July—but it is the last to do much of anything. Upon docking with the International Space Station on Wednesday, Endeavour‘s crew will install the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, bolt on a pallet of spare equipment, and transfer Endeavour‘s robot arm to the station, thereby completing the U.S. sector of the space station. (The Russians still have to take up the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, a major component of the station.) In so doing, the astronauts will make the final four spacewalks of the shuttle program.
Onboard the orbiter itself, they will conduct miscellany of experiments involving, among other creatures, spiders and water bears. The plan is to undock on May 30 and land at the Kennedy Space Center on June 1 at about 2:30 A.M. The mission timetable is determined by celestial mechanics: Earth’s rotation has to bring the Cape into the orbital plane of the space station.
At a post-launch briefing Monday, launch integration manager Mike Moses clarified that the cloud cover never threatened to scrub the launch. “This was not a close one on the weather,” he said. As dismal as the cloud deck looked from the ground, it was only 500 feet thick. Located at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, the clouds obscured the shuttle after only about 20 seconds after launch. “This was one of the quickest disappearances of the shuttle that I’ve seen,” shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said.