Space Shuttle Endeavour Embarks On Final Mission

May 16, 2011
Originally published on May 16, 2011 1:40 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Nell, good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So tell us about the launch.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And just before the shuttle went up, he had some words for family members and NASA workers as well as all the people who came to see this next to last launch.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop. To all of the millions watching today, including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That was Commander Mark Kelly.

MONTAGNE: And what is the Endeavour actually going to be doing on this, it's last flight?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it's carrying six astronauts as well as something called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This is a $2 billion physics experiment that's been in the works for about 16 years. It's basically a particle detector that's going to sift through cosmic rays looking for evidence of weird forms of matter, things like antimatter or dark matter. Astronauts are going to be taking this up to the International Space Station and attaching it to the outside, where it will stay for the life of the station, probably a decade or more.

MONTAGNE: So if NASA has just one shuttle flight left after this one, how are the astronauts going to get to and from the space station once the U.S. no longer has a spaceship to carry them up?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Several U.S. firms are developing rockets and spacecraft that could provide a kind of commercial space flight service. NASA is hoping to use them as a kind of space taxi to get astronauts to low Earth orbit. And that would let the space agency focus on new technologies for more ambitious missions that could take astronauts farther out into space.

MONTAGNE: This all leaves us with one final shuttle flight, and that's the Space Shuttle Atlantis, to watch it go into space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes, that's expected for early to mid-July. And it was going to happen a little earlier, but there were some delays with launching this space shuttle, and so that pushed it back. And this is going to be your last chance ever to see one of these spaceships take off. And so NASA has been flying these for 30 years, but after that last one, that's it - after that you'll have to see them in museums.

MONTAGNE: Nell, thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. And the Space Shuttle Endeavour blasted off this morning on its final voyage.

Unidentified Man: Zero and liftoff for the final launch of Endeavour.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Space Shuttle Endeavor blasted off this morning on its final voyage into space. After this mission, it will become a museum exhibit and NASA will have just one shuttle launch left, the last flight of Atlantis, scheduled for this summer.

NPR's science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to talk about the Endeavour's final trip into space and what's next for NASA after it retires its aging shuttles.

Nell, good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So tell us about the launch.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it was a very dramatic-looking launch. There was sort of a fiery ride up and it went through this layer of clouds, so it sort of lit them up. Lots of people were there to see the launch, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Her husband is astronaut Mark Kelly, who's actually commanding the mission, and fortunately she's recovered enough from her injury earlier this year to be able to see her husband blast off.

And just before the shuttle went up, he had some words for family members and NASA workers as well as all the people who came to see this next to last launch.

Captain MARK KELLY (NASA Astronaut): It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop. To all of the millions watching today, including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That was Commander Mark Kelly.

MONTAGNE: And what is the Endeavour actually going to be doing on this, it's last flight?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it's carrying six astronauts as well as something called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This is a $2 billion physics experiment that's been in the works for about 16 years. It's basically a particle detector that's going to sift through cosmic rays looking for evidence of weird forms of matter, things like antimatter or dark matter. Astronauts are going to be taking this up to the International Space Station and attaching it to the outside, where it will stay for the life of the station, probably a decade or more.

MONTAGNE: So if NASA has just one shuttle flight left after this one, how are the astronauts going to get to and from the space station once the U.S. no longer has a spaceship to carry them up?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for a few years we're going to rely on the Russians. So basically NASA will be buying seats on their rockets and capsules to carry our astronauts.

Several U.S. firms are developing rockets and spacecraft that could provide a kind of commercial space flight service. NASA is hoping to use them as a kind of space taxi to get astronauts to low Earth orbit. And that would let the space agency focus on new technologies for more ambitious missions that could take astronauts farther out into space.

MONTAGNE: This all leaves us with one final shuttle flight, and that's the Space Shuttle Atlantis, to watch it go into space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes, that's expected for early to mid-July. And it was going to happen a little earlier, but there were some delays with launching this space shuttle, and so that pushed it back. And this is going to be your last chance ever to see one of these spaceships take off. And so NASA has been flying these for 30 years, but after that last one, that's it - after that you'll have to see them in museums.

MONTAGNE: Nell, thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. And the Space Shuttle Endeavour blasted off this morning on its final voyage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.