The Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Endeavour roared into orbit yesterday, carrying a giant robot arm that is needed to finish building the international space station.
The mid-afternoon launch went off without a hitch. Among the 20,000-plus guests taking advantage of the convenient liftoff time, perfect weather and Easter holiday break - four world leaders, dignitaries from several countries and even a celebrity couple, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.
"We're trying to get a cross section of America and a cross section of the world to come and see what space is about," NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said. It was a fine day for flying for historic reasons. Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the launch of the world's first space station, the Soviet Union's Salyut 1.
The composition of Endeavour's crew made the anniversary especially striking. The four countries represented make this space crew the most internationally diverse ever.
"Ciao, Italia!" Italian astronaut Umberto Guidoni shouted to well-wishers. Also represented on the crew: Canada, Russia and the United States.
Space station Alpha and its three residents were soaring over the Indian Ocean, near the
Maldives, when Endeavour bolted off its launch pad. The shuttle will catch up with the
"Good luck and have fun on the international space station," launch director Mike Leinbach said.
Commander Kent Rominger and his crew, along with the space station occupants, are about to attempt the most complicated robotics mission ever.
The shuttle's 50-foot robot arm will be used Sunday to hook up the 58-foot space station arm that is packed tightly aboard Endeavour. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and U.S. astronaut Scott Parazynski will venture out on spacewalks Sunday and Tuesday to unfold new arm, bolt it together and bring it alive with power and data wiring.
For the past 2 1/2 years, the shuttle robot arm worked well enough to install pieces on the space station. The complex is getting too big, however, and needs a longer and more flexible reach.
Enter the new billion-dollar arm, called Canadarm2 or simply the Big Arm. It is Canada's major contribution to the space station; Canada also built the much older and less sophisticated shuttle arms.
With a hand on each end, the space station robot arm is capable of moving across the complex, like an inchworm. It is 14 inches in diameter, weighs 3,618 pounds and has seven joints and more maneuverability than a human arm.
"It lifted off so beautifully and successfully. So now, I guess, all we do is wait for the next couple days and see the arm powered up and deployed. That's the next exciting moment,'' said Savi Sachdev, acting director general of space systems for the Canadian Space Agency.
If all goes well, the robot arm will demonstrate its walking and lifting ability and, in a symbolic gesture, hand its packing crate to the shuttle arm in a mighty mechanical handshake.
Also aboard Endeavour: an Italian-built cargo carrier filled with 10,000 pounds of gear. The carrier, named Raffaello, will be attached to the space station Monday. The space station arm must be installed before shuttle Atlantis can deliver a pressure chamber for spacewalking astronauts in June. The new arm also will attach future solar panels and other parts.
Just as crucial is the space station habitation module, to be added in 2006. It was announced yesterday that Italy has agreed to supply the module, bailing out NASA, which cannot afford to build it because of steep budget overruns.
The space station is now limited to three residents. With the module, the crew could expand
to seven, provided someone provides a big enough lifeboat, also a U.S. budget casualty.
Once details are worked out, Italy will build the module, and in exchange, will be allowed to
fly more of its astronauts to the space station. ``It's a major milestone for Italy,'' said
Andrea Lorenzoni, head of the Italian Space Agency's station division.
Endeavour departs the space station April 28, the same day Russia launches a Soyuz
spacecraft to replace one that has been attached to the station for six months. The
three-person capsule serves as a lifeboat for the station crew.
Two Russian cosmonauts and, presumably, California millionaire Dennis Tito will be on
board and will spend six days at the space station. Tito is aiming to be the world's first
space tourist despite NASA's objections about safety.
Goldin said such concerns would not be a problem by the time of the Soyuz launch.
"Safety is our No. 1 objective. Respect among the partners is part of safety,'' Goldin said.