After a one-day weather delay, the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off in a fiery pre-dawn launch Feb. 8. With the space shuttle program due to be discontinued at the end of the year, the launch was the last night launch in the history of the shuttle program.
"What a beautiful launch we had this morning... the orbiter performed extremely well," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations, during the post launch news conference. "This is a great start to a very complicated mission."
Endeavour's primary mission will be the delivery of the Tranquility node, the final module of the U.S. portion of the space station. Tranquility will provide additional room for crew members and many of the space station's life support and environmental control systems. Attached to the node is a cupola, which houses a robotic control station and has seven windows to provide a panoramic view of Earth, celestial objects and visiting spacecraft.
Spanning about 22 feet in length and 14 feet in diameter, Tranquility's connection point on the station will be on the Earth-facing side of the Unity node. The new component will provide an additional docking point for space shuttles and other crew vehicles visiting the station.
Docking with the ISS is set for Feb. 10 with three spacewalks planned to install the Tranquility node and then cupola permanently to the space station. "This will be a good example of international partnerships and cooperation between the station crew and shuttle crew," said Mike Moses, shuttle launch integration manager.
Tranquility was built for NASA by Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy, under contract to the ESA (European Space Agency). Although Tranquility was actually delivered in May, NASA did not officially take possession until Nov. 30.
After the node and cupola are added, the orbiting laboratory will be about 90 percent complete.
According to NASA, the cupola's windows will be more than trim. As more cargo vehicles begin frequenting the space station, the station's robotic arm is going to be called into action to capture some of them as they approach and guide them into their docking port. Cupola will provide additional views for those operations.
Commander George Zamka, Pilot Terry Virts and Mission Specialists Kay Hire, Stephen Robinson, Nicholas Patrick and Robert Behnken began their 13-day mission with an eight and a half minute dash to orbit to begin the pursuit of the orbital outpost, lighting up the central Florida coast as Endeavour arced to the northeast en route to space.
When Endeavour lifted off, the station was traveling at almost five miles a second about 212 miles over western Romania.