Shuttle Endeavour hauled to launch pad

CBS News

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--With the shuttle Discovery just back from its 39th and final space flight Wednesday, the shuttle Endeavour was hauled to launch pad 39A overnight Thursday for work to ready the ship for blastoff April 19 on its 25th and final voyage.

The 3.2-mile trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the ocean-side launch pad began at 7:55 p.m. EST (GMT-5). Powerful spotlights illuminated Endeavour as a squat crawler-transporter carried it past hundreds of Kennedy Space Center workers who turned out to witness what should be the orbiter's last trip to the pad.

The shuttle Endeavour heads for pad 39A late Thursday. (Photos: William Harwood/CBS News)

"Those are the people who have sweated over Endeavour for the last two decades and they are the people who have enabled us to be here tonight," said Gregory H. Johnson, pilot of mission STS-134. "So I was happy to be talking to them and sharing the experience."

Before departing to hitch a brief ride on Endeavour's crawler-transporter, Johnson said he was pleased to see "lots of moms, lots of dads" viewing the shuttle's rollout. "It's an inspiration for me seeing the kids out there," he said.

Endeavour's slow trip to the pad was completed around 3:49 a.m.

Joining Johnson for the 134th shuttle mission will be commander Mark Kelly, Michael Fincke, Gregory Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori.

Kelly's wife, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head in January and is undergoing therapy at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston. Kelly told reporters last month that he expected his wife to attend Endeavour's launching and doctors said Friday there is "a good possibility" she will be able to make the trip.

"The goal is for her to witness the launch in April," Dr. Gerard Francisco, the chief medical officer, told reporters Friday.

But a final decision will depend on the progress of her recovery.

"Our number one concern is that it will be safe and appropriate for her to do that," Francisco said. "We are still planning, we have a lot of options we are considering at this point."

NASA managers plan to hold an executive-level flight readiness review on April 8 to assess Endeavour's ground processing and to set an official launch date. The current target is 7:48:53 p.m. on April 19.

The primary goals of the flight are to deliver a $2 billion particle physics experiment to the International Space Station, along with needed supplies, science gear and a pallet of spare parts that will be stored on the lab's power truss. Working in two-man teams, Fincke, Chamitoff and Feustel also plan to carry out four spacewalks to service massive rotating solar array drive mechanisms and to perform a variety of maintenance tasks.

But for Johnson, the most exciting moment likely will be Endeavour's thundering climb to space.

"The ascent is pretty spectacular," he said. "I trained almost 10 years before I got to go on my first space shuttle flight. ... All that simulation didn't prepare me for the spectacle of launch. It was like sensory overload with the light and the sound, you could feel it, you could almost taste it.

"As the space shuttle launched off the pad, I was like a deer staring into the headlights for a second. I said 'wait a second, I'm the pilot, I have a job to do here' and got my wits about me. But it was quite the experience!"

If all goes well, Endeavour's countdown will begin at 6 p.m. on April 16. Assuming an on-time launch, Kelly will guide Endeavour to a docking at the space station's forward port around 5:02 p.m. on April 21. The primary payload, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, will be attached to the right side of the station's power truss the next day.

Engineers attach a hydrogen vent line to the side of Endeavour's external tank.

The day after that -- April 23 -- Feustel and Chamitoff plan to carry out the first of the crew's four planned spacewalks. Feustel and Fincke will stage the next two EVAs on April 25 and 27 followed by a final excursion by Fincke and Chamitoff on April 29.

Endeavour is scheduled to undock from the space station around 10:09 a.m. on May 1. Landing back at the Kennedy Space Center is expected around 1:30 p.m. on May 3.

NASA plans to close out the shuttle program with a final space station resupply flight by the Atlantis. Launch is targeted for June 28.