Shuttle Mission Launches in Spectacular Fashion

Space Shuttle Endeavour thundered into a starry Florida sky this morning, keeping NASA on a tight schedule to finish the International Space Station and retire its shuttle fleet in two years.

Cmdr. Dominic Gorie told launch director Mike Leinbach just before the shuttle's main engines were ignited, "let's light'em up and give'em a show."

It was a show that lit up the skies all over the eastern coast of Florida.

This mission, designated STS-123, is one of a dozen that remain on NASA's shuttle manifest.

The last flight, STS-133, is tentatively scheduled for the middle of 2010. STS-119 has not flown yet; the parts it is supposed to deliver to the space station will have to wait until others are installed and working properly.

Mission Management Team chairman LeRoy Cain said in a post-launch news conference that he believes the launch was problem free. "We viewed some of the video and in those reviews we did not see anything that caught our attention."

Inside Endeavour's cargo bay are parts of a large laboratory called Kibo, built by the Japanese space agency. Kibo is so complex that three shuttle flights will be required to get it up and running.

Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, who flew on a shuttle mission in 1997, is on board to oversee the assembly of the lab.

"For the Japanese people, what we can do with this module is for many purposes, like science, or technology experiments, or writing poems, or paintings, anything can do done in this module."

In addition, Endeavour's crew will install a Canadian-made two-armed robot that can move around to different parts of the space station.

Nicknamed Dextre, the robot will install and service components on the station's exterior, reducing the need for astronauts to go on spacewalks.

Daniel Ray, who heads up the Dextre project for the Canadians, expects great things from his robot.

"It's quite surprising what a robot like Dextre can do with its sense of touch and its precision," Ray said.

Dextre notwithstanding, there are five spacewalks on the schedule for Endeavour's flight. Astronauts Richard Linnehan, Michael Foreman, Garrett Reisman and Robert Behnken will divide up the outside work.

Gorie is making his fourth flight. Beside him on the flight deck is pilot Gregory Johnson, who has waited nearly 10 years for his first flight.

There will be something of a Musical Chairs game on this flight, as there have been on past space station missions.

Reisman will stay behind as a member of the space station crew. His seat on the ride home will be taken by French Gen. Leopold Eyeharts, who was delivered to the station by the Shuttle Atlantis six weeks ago.

Reisman is a devoted Yankees fan, his home page on orbit has the league standings and he is flying with some dirt from Yankee stadium.

"The Yankees let me have a small sample of dirt from the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium," he said.

He thought about getting dirt from Fenway and mixing it with the Yankee stadium dirt as a gesture of goodwill while on orbit, and then decided against it. "Some conflicts are not meant to be resolved."

There will also be something of a traffic jam in orbit. A new European-made robotic cargo ship, known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle or ATV, was launched from French Guiana, Saturday. It will hover in orbit until Endeavour has left and then dock with the station.

After the shuttles are retired, the space station will have to rely on the European ATV, plus Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, for supplies and new crew members.

The next generation of American piloted ships, known as Orion, will not begin flying until the middle of the next decade.