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The Endeavors of Endeavour

A photo gallery of the youngest space shuttle, which has taken off on its final mission.

*Updated Monday, May 16, 2011

At 8:56 AM EDT today, the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) on its final 16-day mission. Endeavour will deliver spare parts for the space station as well as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a particle detector designed to study the universe and its origins. The mission will also feature the last scheduled spacewalks by shuttle crew members. Astronauts will work outside the space station to install new components and conduct repairs.

See a video of the launch.

Here Endeavour has just fired its engines. The shuttle’s automatic launch system starts nine minutes before the scheduled launch time and ignites Endeavour’s three main engines 6.6 seconds before blastoff. When the clock hits zero, the solid rocket boosters are also ignited, giving the shuttle its lifting power. (See the countdown milestones and times.)

Just seconds after launch, Endeavour disappeared into the clouds. The conditions were ideal for launch, but the low cloud coverage restricted spectators’ view of the shuttle as it ascended. This image shows steam exhaust clouds around the launch pad. To dampen the noise from the shuttle’s rockets, 400,000 gallons of water are sprayed underneath the exhaust for six seconds before launch and 15 seconds afterward. The exhaust cloud seen here also includes the steam created by the combustion of the shuttle’s fuel, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

* Updated Sunday, May 1, 2011, with an image from the launchpad. 

The planned April 29 launch of Endeavour was delayed after engineers detected a malfunction in a unit that provides the hydraulic pressure needed to control the shuttle during takeoffs and landings. The source of the malfunction was traced to a power control box, the aft load control assembly 2. Engineers replaced the box and other faulty hardware, clearing the way for a final 14-day mission to the ISS.

NASA administrator Richard H. Truly presides over the rollout of  Endeavour from the factory in 1991. Following a competition among elementary- and high-school students,  Endeavour was named after a ship commanded by the 18th-century explorer James Cook. It wasn’t the first NASA spacecraft to bear the name: the command module of Apollo 15 was also called Endeavour.

Endeavour, whose cockpit is shown here under construction in Palmdale, California, was built to replace the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded on launch in 1986. The structure of  Endeavour was assembled from spare parts that had been made during the construction of the other shuttles in case a major repair was required. Endeavour had all the latest shuttle upgrades built in, including improved avionics and flight computers as well as equipment that would let it stay in orbit for as long as 28 days.

On Endeavour’s first mission, in May 1992, the crew conducted four space walks, a record for the shuttle program. Here, Rick Hieb peers into the aft flight deck from the cargo bay.

The highlight of that first mission was the capture of Intelsat 603, a communication satellite that was stranded uselessly in low Earth orbit when the booster engine intended to send the satellite into a higher orbit failed. The  Endeavour crew was able to replace the booster engine and redeploy the satellite. The new booster succeeded in putting Intelsat 603 into geostationary orbit, where it’s been working ever since.

Endeavour was a proving ground for some of the earliest attempts to sell commercial spaceflight services. This June 1993 launch marked the debut of the pressurized SpaceHab module, which was mounted in the shuttle’s cargo bay to provide extra storage and work space for astronauts.  Modules were built by SpaceHab (now Astrotech) and leased to NASA, an arrangement that continued for the next 14 years.

During 1996 and 1997 Endeavour received its first major overhaul, with an external airlock fitted in the cargo bay to allow the shuttle to dock at space stations. In January 1998, Endeavour visited the Mir space station, some of whose solar panels can be seen in the foreground.

In the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in late 1998, Endeavor is prepared for the United States’ first International Space Station mission. In preparation for being rolled out to the launch pad, the shuttle had to be lifted into a vertical position and attached to an external fuel tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters.

During Endeavor‘s1996-97 overhaul, the systems enabling the shuttle to stay in orbit for 28 days were removed in order to maximize the payload that could be brought into orbit for construction and supply of the International Space Station. In December 1998, Endeavour performed the United States’ first ISS mission, bringing into orbit the Unity module (foreground) and mating it to the previously launched Russian Zarya module (background).

After a flight in February 2010,  Endeavour was sent to an orbiter processing facility at Kennedy Space Center to prepare for its final flight. The  flight is intended to deliver supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station, as well as a spectrometer that will be used to study cosmic rays in hopes of understanding dark matter and other scientific mysteries.

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