CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. space shuttle Endeavour blasted off on Monday on the next-to-last flight in NASA’s shuttle program, carrying a potentially revolutionary physics experiment to the International Space Station.
The flight is the 25th and final one for the spacecraft Endeavour, which was expected to reach the orbital outpost on Wednesday. NASA plans one more mission to the station, using the sister shuttle Atlantis, in July, before ending the shuttle program.
Endeavour’s last mission is being commanded by Mark Kelly, a four-time shuttle veteran who is married to U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from a January 8 assassination attempt that killed six people and injured 12 others.
Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, watched the launch with the families of the Endeavour crew in a private area at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. She said “good stuff” as the shuttle soared through the sky, a spokeswoman said.
“I think relief was her biggest feeling,” said Pia Carusone, Giffords’ chief of staff.
With Kelly and five other veteran astronauts aboard, Endeavour roared off its seaside launch pad at 8:56 a.m. (1:56 p.m. British time) and quickly disappeared into the clouds, giving about 500,000 spectators on central Florida’s Atlantic coast a brief view.
“We don’t have any flight rules that dictate how long you can see the launch before it goes out of sight,” Mike Moses, the head of NASA’s mission management team, said jokingly. “I apologise that the view wasn’t the best.”
Endeavour carries the $2 billion (1 billion pounds) Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector, which is designed to analyse cosmic rays for fingerprints of dark matter, antimatter and other phenomena undetectable by traditional telescopes.
The instrument, built by a consortium of 60 research agencies in 16 countries, is expected to sift through 25,000 cosmic ray hits a second and operate for at least the next 10 years while attached to the outside of the space station.
The shuttle also carries a pallet of spare parts to tide over the station after the shuttle program ends this summer.
NASA had hoped Endeavour would be back from its final space mission by now, but the first launch attempt on April 29 was scuttled after a heater in one of the ship’s hydraulic power generators failed.
The flight is the 134th in shuttle history.
“She’s got a lot of life left in her but that’s not meant to be,” launch director Mike Leinbach said of Endeavour’s last mission.
The shuttles are being retired due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop spaceships that can travel beyond the station’s orbit. The shuttle Discovery completed its final mission in March.
Russian and European freighters will keep the space station stocked with food, water and supplies in the immediate future. NASA also has hired two commercial companies, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp, to fly cargo to the station. The firms are expected to begin deliveries to the orbiting outpost next year.
Crew transportation will be handled solely by Russia until U.S. companies develop the capabilities. Then NASA wants to buy flight services, rather than develop and operate its own fleet to ferry astronauts to the station.
British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic affiliate is testing the world’s first commercial sub-orbital spaceship, was among those who watched Monday’s launch.
“I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship waiting to be dropped from the mother ship and heading off into space,” Branson said.
Endeavour, which first flew in 1992 and is the youngest of NASA’s shuttles, was commissioned as a replacement for Challenger, the shuttle destroyed in a 1986 launch accident that killed seven astronauts.
The shuttle is due to return to the Kennedy Space Centre on June 1. After landing, Endeavour will go on display at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles.
Discovery is promised to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and Atlantis will spend its retirement in Florida at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex.
Editing by Kevin Gray, Pascal Fletcher and Paul Simao