After nearly one week of delays, the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour is finally on its way with a new crew and supplies for the international space station. Endeavour is bringing commemorations of the September 11 terrorist attacks into orbit.
It was the first shuttle launch since a month before the terrorist incidents, and NASA took no chances. Security was the tightest ever for a liftoff.
Air space surrounding the launch pad and sea lanes off Florida's coast were cleared far beyond normal distances for a launch, with military aircraft patrolling the prohibited zones.
Flight Director Wayne Hale says NASA considered even stricter security, but rejected it. Mr. Hale said, "There was discussion about classifying the launch time and other significant mission events. NASA headquarters felt that at this stage, it would be not only inappropriate but ineffective to try to do anything with regard to the public dissemination of those events."
Endeavour commander Dom Gorie has said a successful shuttle mission would help the nation heal from the September attacks. On the launch pad moments before liftoff, he continued to stress the flight's importance in this regard. "From the entire crew," he said, "we're all well aware that for over 200 years, and certainly over the last two months, freedom [has rung] loud and clear across this country, but right here and right now, it's time to let freedom roar! Let's light 'em up!"
Packed in the shuttle are 6,000 small U.S. flags, ensigns from the New York police and fire departments, and a U.S. Marine Corps flag in tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks.
The main cargo, however, is the space station's fourth crew, a Russian commander and two U.S. astronauts who will stay for five months. After the 46-hour flight to the outpost, they will replace the U.S. commander and two cosmonauts who have been aloft since August.
Flight director Wayne Hale says the spacecraft is also ferrying tons of supplies and scientific experiments for the new crew. "Those of us who work on the shuttle flight control team are in the position of delivery truck drivers. But, oh, what a delivery truck we've got!"
Endeavour was to have taken off last Thursday, but remained grounded by bad weather at the Florida launch site Tuesday and before that, by problems docking a Russian Progress cargo ship to the station. A rubber seal left behind by a previous supply ship prevented the Progress from making an airtight fit to the docking port.
But station cosmonauts successfully removed the debris during a spacewalk Monday, allowing Progress to lock in to the outpost and the shuttle to launch.