Endeavour’s final 14 days in space have begun. With NASA shutting down its 34-year-old space shuttle program, Monday’s launch of the Endeavour will mark the farewell mission for the space shuttle and it will be one of the final missions for the program as a whole.
During a two-week stay at the International Space Station, the Endeavour crew will deliver supplies, communication equipment and replacement arms for a pair of robots on the station. Mark Kelly, the husband of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, will be commanding the crew.
Here is a look back at the history of this venerable space shuttle:
* Endeavour ended up being the fifth and final space shuttle built by NASA. It was constructed as a replacement craft for Challenger, which tragically exploded Jan. 28, 1986, and killed the entire seven-member crew aboard the shuttle.
* It is named after the first ship commanded by James Cook, an 18th century British explorer, navigator and astronomer. In 1769, Cook became the first person to fully chart New Zealand and he is credited with developing a dietary cure for scurvy.
* Endeavour’s maiden flight took place May 7, 1992. It spent almost nine days in space and was sent to retrieve the Intelsat VI satellite from a dangerous low Earth orbit. The shuttle orbited the Earth 141 times during its initial mission and featured the first three-man extravehicular activity during a shuttle mission.
* Upgraded hardware expanded the capabilities in the Endeavour and made it the most advanced model of the four space shuttles at the time of its construction. Much of the equipment was incorporated over time into the other three orbiters. These upgrades included a 40-foot diameter drag chute that reduced the orbiter’s rollout distance by 2,000 feet and improvements in plumbing and electrical connections that allowed missions to last up to 28 days.
* In its first four years of service, Endeavour flew 11 missions. The majority of the missions were designed to perform scientific experiments in Earth orbit.
* No flights were scheduled for Endeavour through 1997. The shuttle underwent an orbiter maintenance down period lasting eight months. During this time, NASA installed an external airlock so Endeavour would be capable of docking with the International Space Station, which was under construction at that time.
* Endeavour flew eight more missions from 1998 to 2002 before undergoing another orbiter maintenance down period lasting 24 months. It had the final successful flight before Columbia disintegrated during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, and killed all seven crew members aboard the shuttle.
* During its second maintenance period, Endeavour underwent 124 safety modifications. These included installing a glass cockpit featuring a multi-functional electronic display system. Engineers and technicians spent 900,000 hours implementing the modifications.
* Endeavour is embarking on its sixth and final mission since returning to service in 2007. All five previous missions involved assembling components of the International Space Station. The final mission will be in the same vein, with Endeavour astronauts delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the station. This newest piece of equipment will be used to study high-energy cosmic ray particles from low Earth orbit as a means of detecting antimatter and dark matter.
“Countdown to space shuttle Endeavour’s final launch,” Larry Greenemeier, Scientific American, Apr 28, 2011.
“Endeavour (OV-105)”, Kennedy Space Center, October 17, 2005: http://science.ksc.nasa.gov