NASA: Next to last shuttle launch slated April 29

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s next-to-last space shuttle flight is set to begin late next week, and special preparations are under way in case the commander’s wife, wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is able to attend.

Endeavour is scheduled to blast off April 29 on its final voyage, the second to last before the shuttle program ends. Mission managers set the launch date Tuesday.

The mission will be led by Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband. He is awaiting doctors’ permission for his wife to attend the afternoon launch.

Giffords was critically wounded in Tucson, Ariz., three months ago and has been undergoing extensive rehabilitation at a hospital in Houston, home to Kelly and the rest of the astronaut corps.

Launch director Mike Leinbach said he hopes Giffords comes and stressed it would not be a distraction to his team.

“There’s a whole separate team working that issue,” he told reporters. “Hope she comes, but I don’t know if she will or not.”

Leinbach said there are security issues to deal with if Giffords travels to Florida for the liftoff. “Where does she go and how many people ... there are just all kinds of things.”

Kelly took a monthlong leave from NASA to be at his wife’s hospital bedside. He’s flown three times before in space, most recently in 2008. Crew families view launches at Kennedy Space Center from a restricted area, so Giffords likely will not be seen publicly if she attends.

The six-man crew will arrive Tuesday, shortly before the start of the countdown. Liftoff is scheduled for 3:47 p.m. the following Friday.

Endeavour will fly to the International Space Station and deliver a $2 billion particle physics experiment. The mission is scheduled for 14 days, but NASA expects to add two bonus days once the shuttle is in orbit.

It will be the 134th shuttle mission overall and the 25th for Endeavour, NASA’s youngest shuttle. It was built to replace Challenger, which was destroyed during liftoff in 1986.

The top of Endeavour’s wings still look factory fresh, Leinbach said. But the external fuel tank has been through a lot — namely, Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Part of the roof caved in at the New Orleans assembly plant and struck the tank. To commemorate the rebuilding effort, a picture showing a shuttle soaring through the eye of a hurricane was attached to the tank, the first such logo in shuttle history.

Leinbach said emotions are high as the shuttle program draws to a close. Only one other launch remains, by Atlantis at the end of June.

Earlier this month, 535 contractor workers were laid off in the latest round of cutbacks.

“That put a little bit of a somber mood on the team, I’d say, but we’re dealing with it,” Leinbach said. “The emotional aspect is very, very real. It’s very difficult to put into words.”

Leinbach said Kennedy Space Center got “a big boost” last week when NASA said Atlantis would go on display at its visitor center. The shuttle-winning museums were announced last week on the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch. Discovery is going to a Smithsonian branch in suburban Washington, and Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

NASA is under presidential direction to hand over orbital trips to commercial companies, so it can focus on expeditions to asteroids and Mars. For the next few years at least, American astronauts will continue to fly Russian capsules to and from the space station, paying tens of millions of dollars per seat.

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