The space shuttle Endeavour blasted off today on its final flight, after which the orbiter will embark on a new mission – to inspire passion in space travel among visitors at its retirement location at California Science Center.
Endeavour lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning for a trip to the International Space Station. It is the 30-year-old program’s penultimate flight, with the 135th and final flight scheduled for July with the launch of Atlantis.
Endeavour and its six-man crew will be taking to the International Space Station an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $2 billion piece of equipment built to shine a light on dark matter of the type that, to date, has eluded scientific analysis.
Endeavour’s 16-day mission, led by Mark Kelly, the husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., includes four planned spacewalks, the last scheduled by shuttle astronauts, and will serve to prepare the station for operations once shuttle flights cease.
Giffords, recovering from a gunshot wound to the head inflicted in a shooting in Tucson in January, watched Endeavour lift off on its 25th and final flight. A scheduled April 29 liftoff was cancelled because of a technical glitch.
Back on Earth, Endeavour will be placed on permanent display at the California Science Center in Exposition Park by early to mid-2012.
“We are extremely excited about the shuttle coming to Southern California. It’s a tremendous opportunity to extend our education mission and to inspire so many people to dream about what is possible,” Science Center CEO Jeffrey N. Rudolph said last month. The center averages 1.4 million visits per year.
Endeavour was built in Palmdale to replace the destroyed Challenger shuttle. Construction began in 1987 and ended in 1991.
It was the final shuttle built but the first to include such safety improvements as a drag parachute deployed on landing, and nose-wheel steering to prevent wear on the tires during runway rollout.
When its final mission is completed, Endeavour will have traveled 115 million miles, carrying 139 people into orbit, according to NASA.