Space Shuttle Endeavour Launches for the Last Time

After weeks of delays, the space shuttle Endeavour launched into space from Kennedy Space Center.

The space shuttle Endeavour rocketed into space for its final voyage the morning of May 16 from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bringing the storied program one step closer to a close.

Endeavour's last launch will be the space agency's penultimate shuttle flight. The shuttle lifted off at exactly 8:56 a.m EST after a series of technical issues forced weeks of delays. Now Endeavour and its crew embark on a 16-day mission at the ISS (International Space Station).

The crew members for space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission are Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Gregory H. Johnson and mission specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff and Andrew Feustel, and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori. Kelly's wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was critically wounded after an assassination attempt in Arizona in January, arrived at Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch.

The Associated Press reported Giffords and her staff received a brief tour of the shuttle as it sat on the launchpad. "Gabrielle is excited for tomorrow's launch. Do you plan to see history in the making?" her staff tweeted. Early this morning her Twitter account greeted her followers with a good morning message before asking, "Who's ready for the best show on Earth?"

The shuttle will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS), a particle physics detector designed to operate from the station and search for various types of unusual matter, to the ISS. Also onboard for delivery will be station spare parts on the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier 3 (ELC3), including two S-band communications antennas, a high-pressure gas tank, an ammonia tank assembly, circuit breaker boxes, a Canadarm2 computer and a spare arm for the Dextre robot. The ELC3 also houses a suite of Department of Defense (DoD) experiments that will test systems and materials concepts for long duration spaceflight in low Earth orbit.

Endeavour's final mission also includes four spacewalks that focus on station maintenance, experiment swap out and transferring Endeavour's orbiter boom sensor system (OBSS) to the station. The crew will leave the boom as a permanent fixture to aid future station spacewalk work if needed, according to a mission overview provided by the space agency.

Feustel will perform spacewalks one, two and three, wearing a spacesuit marked with solid red stripes. By the end of the mission, he will have six spacewalks on his resume-he participated in three spacewalks during the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in 2009. Going into the mission, he has already spent 20 hours and 58 minutes spacewalking. Wearing an all-white spacesuit, Fincke will go outside the station for spacewalks two, three and four.

For the third spacewalk, Feustel and Fincke will try out a new procedure aimed at cutting down the amount of oxygen used in spacewalk preparations. Rather than spend the night inside the Quest Airlock, used to purge nitrogen from the spacewalkers' systems and prevent decompression sickness (also known as "the bends"), Feustel and Fincke will wait until the morning of their spacewalk to begin getting ready.

They will breathe pure oxygen through air masks for an hour as the air pressure inside the Quest is lowered. After that, they will be able to put on their spacesuits and perform light exercise, which NASA described as making small leg movements inside the Quest for 50 minutes to raise their metabolic rate and purge nitrogen from their bloodstream before the start of the spacewalk.

Endeavour ends it service with 25 missions-it was the last addition to NASA's orbiter fleet and named after the first ship commanded by James Cook, the 18th-century British explorer, navigator and astronomer. Following this final flight, Endeavour will be displayed in Los Angeles at the California Science Center.