SPACE shuttle Endeavour rocketed into orbit yesterday on what is likely to be the last night-time launch for the programme.
The shuttle programme is nearing retirement and there are only another four flights left.
The shuttle, with six astronauts on board, took flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, before dawn, igniting the sky with a brilliant flash seen for miles around.
Thick, low clouds that had delayed a first launch attempt on Sunday returned, but then cleared away just in time.
Endeavour’s destination, the International Space Station, was soaring over Romania at the time of lift-off. The shuttle is set to arrive at the station early tomorrow.
Commander George Zamka and his crew will deliver and install Tranquility, a new room that will eventually house life-support equipment, exercise machines and a toilet, as well as a seven-windowed observation dome which has the biggest window ever sent into space, a circle 79 centimetres across.
It will be the last major construction job at the space station.
Yesterday morning’s countdown ended up being uneventful, except for a last-minute run to the launch pad. Astronaut Stephen Robinson forgot the binder holding all his flight data files, and the emergency red team had to rush it out to him, just before he climbed aboard.
A quick look at the launch video showed a few pieces of foam insulation breaking off Endeavour’s external fuel tank, but none appeared to strike the shuttle, officials said.
The 13-day mission comes at an agonising time for Nasa. Exactly one week ago, the space agency finally got its marching orders from President Barack Obama, who ordered them to ditch the back-to-the-moon Constellation programme and its Ares rockets and focus on an as-yet-unspecified rocket and destination.
The space station came out a winner in the Obama plan. The president’s budget would keep the outpost flying until at least 2020, a major extension.
The four remaining shuttle flights to the station – in March, May, July and September – have daytime departures, at least for now. A delay could bump any of the launches into darkness.
Three spacewalks are planned during Endeavour’s flight to hook up the station compartments, beginning on Thursday.
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