SCIENCE -- May 16, 2011 at 7:00 AM EDT
Watch Live: Space Shuttle Endeavour's Final Liftoff
Space shuttle Endeavour, NASA's youngest orbiter, blasted off into space for the final time at 8:56 am ET today, marking the next-to-last scheduled launch of the 30-year shuttle program. Just after 9 am ET, NASA confirmed that the shuttle had entered orbit.
Main Engine Cutoff confirmed - space shuttle Endeavour is in space to begin a 16-day mission.
The orbiter and its six-member crew - led by Commander Mark Kelly - are bound for the International Space Station, where they're scheduled to dock at about 6 a.m. ET on Wednesday. You can watch the live stream of the mission here:
During its 16-day mission, the crew will deliver to the International Space Station a $2 billion particle physics detector, know as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS. AMS is a massive supercooled magnet designed to soak up cosmic rays, and to search for dark matter and antimatter. It will also deliver spare parts, including two communication antennas and a high-pressure gas tank. Four spacewalks are planned during the mission.
Endeavour is scheduled to return to Earth on June 1.
By early Monday morning, the shuttle was fully fueled, the astronauts were strapped in for launch and NASA was reporting no technical issues. A small area of damaged ceramic tile near Endeavour's side hatch was repaired this morning. Engineers determined that it would not affect launch, NASA said.
All 6 astronauts are aboard Endeavour and the Close Out Crew is preparing to close the hatch. The Final Inspection Team reports no issues.
"Looks like a great day to launch Endeavour for the final time," Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach radioed the crew, after the shuttle had been given the go for launch," according to NASA.
Endeavour's liftoff comes after nearly three weeks of delays, caused by a heater failure on one of the ship's power units. Since the initial launch attempt, engineers have replaced and retested a thermostat and switch box that connects to the heater and other shuttle functions. Shuttle managers think the glitch that foiled the launch was related to wiring from the one of these switch boxes -- the aft load control assembly-2 -- to one of the heaters.
Commander Mark Kelly and crew returned to Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. On Friday, NASA managers restarted the countdown to launch.
Kelly's wife, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in Tucson in January, returned for the launch.
Endeavour was born out of tragedy -- authorized in 1987 to replace the Challenger shuttle after the 1986 disaster. In its short nine-year career, the shuttle has flown missions to fix a communications satellite, repair the Hubble Space Telescope and transported to space the first African-American woman, and the first married couple.
It was named in a national contest by elementary school students after the British HMS Endeavor, the sailing ship commanded by 18th century explorer James Cook. Today will mark its 25th launch. After this flight, Endeavour will retire at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it will remain on permanent display.
Watch Miles O'Brien's LIVE webcast for Spaceflight Now here.
And you can submit your questions for our special LIVE interview with the Endeavour crew, which is expected to take place three days after launch. It's part of a collaboration with Google and YouTube.
Update, May 17 - The live interview has been moved up to occur between 6 and 6:30 a.m. ET on Thursday, May 19.