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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rare night time shuttle launch

U.S. space shuttle Endeavour and a crew of seven are beginning a 16-day mission to the International Space Station.

Endeavour blasted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The 16-day voyage to deliver equipment to the ISS will be the longest shuttle-mission to the space station.

The seven-man crew of the shuttle Endeavour maneuvered toward the international space station early Wednesday, with the astronauts spending their first full day in orbit carefully examining the ship for any launch damage.

Endeavour was set to dock with the station late Wednesday to deliver a giant robot and the first piece of a new Japanese lab.

As the shuttle closed in on the orbiting outpost, the crew used a 100-foot laser-tipped boom to inspect its wings and nose for any sign of launch damage. The inspection has been standard procedure ever since the 2003 Columbia disaster, in which seven astronauts died.

Flight director Mike Moses said a quick look at the images the astronauts beamed down to Earth revealed no signs of trouble, but engineers will spend Wednesday poring over the data.

Cameras captured a possible strike to Endeavour's nose 10 seconds after liftoff, but Moses said he wasn't worried because the ship wasn't traveling fast enough at that time to sustain serious damage.

He said it was too early to tell whether the material came off the ship and whether or not it actually struck the shuttle. Engineers will analyze video captured during launch to try to answer those questions.

Additionally, a significant piece of foam or other debris came off Endeavour's tank just over a minute into the flight. It appeared to miss the right wing.

In addition to performing the inspection, the astronauts also prepared their spacesuits for the five spacewalks they plan to perform and gathered the tools they'll need for the rendezvous.

"It was a really good day," Endeavour commander Dominic Gorie said as the crew prepared to go to sleep.

Endeavour's crew and the three space station residents face a grueling schedule once their spacecraft docks. They will perform five spacewalks, the most ever planned during a shuttle visit.

The spacewalking teams must assemble Canada's robot, Dextre, which was packed aboard Endeavour in nine pieces, and attach a Japanese storage compartment to the space station. It is the first installment of Japan's massive Kibo lab, which means Hope.

The main part of the Kibo lab will fly on the next shuttle mission in May, with the final installment, a porch for outdoor experiments, going up next year.

"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time, so this is a great honor for us to work with you," Japanese Mission Control radioed space station commander Peggy Whitson early Wednesday.

"We're glad to have you on board," she replied.
A freshly inspected space shuttle Endeavour looked to be in good shape on Wednesday as it headed toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station to deliver a Japanese laboratory.

A check of the ship's heat shield, using a robot arm equipped with laser and cameras, turned up no obvious damage from Tuesday's launch, although NASA said debris or a bird may have struck the nose as it rose from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"My untrained eye says, first cut through, everything looked fine," flight director Mike Moses told reporters at Johnson Space Center.

NASA experts will study the inspection video to make sure there are no trouble spots in the heat shield, he said.

Images from the night launch showed something that appeared to collide with Endeavour's nose 10 seconds after it lifted off from the seaside launch pad.

When asked if it might have been a bird, Moses said, "It's certainly a possibility, I can't even begin to speculate what it might be."

He said at that point in the flight, Endeavour was not going fast enough to do much damage.

In-flight heat shield inspections were begun after shuttle Columbia disintegrated while returning to Earth in 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board.

An investigation found that insulating foam flew off the fuel tank during launch, struck the wing and damaged the heat shield, which caused Columbia to break apart during the fiery descent into the atmosphere.

Endeavour was scheduled to dock with the space station on Wednesday night at 10:25 p.m. CST (0325 GMT on Thursday).

During what is scheduled to be a 12-day station stay, the shuttle's seven-man crew will install the first part of Japan's Kibo laboratory and a new Canadian-built robotic system called Dextre for detailed work on the station exterior.

Kibo, which means "hope" in English, is Japan's primary contribution to the $100 billion station, which is a project of 15 countries.

About the size of a double-decker bus, it will be the station's largest lab when its assembly is completed next year.

Space shuttle Endeavour blasts off

Shuttle Endeavour and a crew of seven blasted off Tuesday on what was to be the longest space station mission ever, a 16-day voyage to build a gangly robot and add a new room that will serve as a closet for a future lab.

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