The space shuttle Endeavor is poised for its final launch (unless United Space Alliance’s bid to operate the shuttles as private spacecraft proves fruitful) today.
Its the baby of our shuttle fleet, assembled mostly from spare parts, authorized by Congress in 1988 as a replacement for Challenger, and first launched in 1992. Since they recycled left-over parts from the construction of Discovery and Atlantis, they were able to make Endeavor the least expesnive of the orbiters, with a price tag of a mere 1.7 billion (chump change for spacecraft, really.)
It wasn’t all old-parts though, as Endeavor had a few features not found on the other shuttles (at least at the time). For instance, Endeavor was the first shuttle to use a drag-chute in its landing.
Today will be its 25th and final NASA mission. This is a picture from the STS-88 mission, which was the first US mission dedicated to construction on the International Space Station. Strapped in the cargo bay there is the Unity module. The first module, the Russian Zarya module, was already in orbit, but when Endeavor’s crew attached Unity to it, no longer were they just modules in orbit, but now a space-station under construction.
I want this as a poster for my desk.
Today it will be making another contribution, flying the last big piece to be added to the station from the American side of things… the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Endeavor, thus, is sort of a bookend for US construction on the station. When Atlantis flies later this year, it won’t be adding anything new to the station, but instead will be taking up spare parts we won’t have the ability to get up there once the shuttles are museum displays.
This is a rather important experiment… one of those really important ones we really ought to have, given how much money we’ve put into building the space station… only makes sense we do some serious science up there, right?
This addition almost got scrapped, but fortunately was spared, and should remain in operation through the station’s currently authorized life-span. I might do a blog about it sometime soon.. (To put the Endeavor’s price tag in perspective.. the experiment it is carrying up cost 1.5 billion… only 200 million less than the shuttle that is carrying it.)
As the only shuttle named by school children, Endeavor has a special connection with certain aspects of our society. It may not have done quite as much work as the rest of our fleet, but it nevertheless has made major contributions to those of us here on the ground, and for that, it deserves our thanks.
In a few weeks time, it will have landed and will be getting prepared for its new home in Los Angeles’ California Science Center. If its on display come October, when I’m down that way, I’m going to insist we go take a look.
(Oh yeah, I’ll be in southern California the week of October 17th.)
Hopefully I’ll be able to watch this launch live on NASA TV as well. (3:47 EDT)