A look back at NASA history as the space shuttle Endeavour prepares for its last trip into Earth's orbit.
NASA launches space shuttle Endeavour's final flight
Commissioned in 1987 to replace the space shuttle Challenger, which was lost in 1986, and named by elementary school students after the British HMS Endeavour, the sailing ship that took Captain James Cook on his first travels, the space shuttle Endeavour has earned a short but noteworthy place in NASA's history of space exploration.
The youngest of NASA's shuttle fleet, Endeavour was built with unique upgrades from previous orbiters, including the drag parachute used on landing; modified electrical and plumbing systems in the Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO), to allow for extended stays on board (up to 28 days); more-advanced computers and navigation systems; a solid-state star tracker; and improved steering mechanisms.
As a tool of space innovation, Endeavour has contributed to projects that have had far-reaching impacts on the space program, including the major Hubble Space Telescope repairs that improved Hubble's clarity, and 10 dockings with the International Space Station, during which Endeavour delivered and installed major sections of the international space outpost. This week will see the launch of mission STS-134, Endeavour's 25th and final flight, and the second-to-last space shuttle mission ever.
In this photo, Endeavour is seen on February 9, 2010, over the South Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern Chile, at an altitude of 183 miles. The craft is silhouetted against the Earth as it prepares to dock with the International Space Station.
The orange troposphere, where all of the clouds we see from Earth are generated and contained, gives way to the whitish stratosphere and then to the mesosphere.
On February 18, 2008, as Endeavour prepares for the launch of mission STS-123, the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds aerobatic display team performs a flyby of Launch Complex 39A in commemoration of NASA's 50th anniversary.
Lightning strikes Endeavour's Launch Complex 39A on July 11, 2009, during a major thunderstorm. There were at least 11 lightning strikes within 0.35 miles of the launchpad during the storms, delaying the launch for at least 24 hours while engineers analyzed data and retested systems on the orbiter.
The Mobile Remote Servicer Base System (MBS) is seen here being moved by the Canadarm2 for installation on the International Space Station during the STS-111 mission to rendevous with the outpost.
Astronauts Peggy A. Whitson, Expedition Five flight engineer, and Carl E. Walz, Expedition Four flight engineer, attached the MBS to the Mobile Transporter during a spacewalk on June 10, 2002. The MBS is an important part of the station's Mobile Servicing System, which will allow the station's robotic arm to travel the length of the station to perform construction tasks.
In the grasp of the International Space Station's robotic arm, Canadarm2, the Tranquility module is transferred from its location in Endeavour's payload bay to position it on the port side of the Unity node of the International Space Station during mission STS-130 on February 11, 2010.
Held by the robotic Mobile Servicing System (MSS) Canadarm2, the ISS's observation deck, known as the cupola, is relocated from the forward port to the Earth-facing port of the International Space Station's newly installed Tranquility node.
NASA astronauts Terry Virts, STS-130 pilot, and Kathryn Hire, mission specialist, are seen here moving the cupola, operating the station's robotic arm from controls inside the Destiny laboratory on February 15, 2010.
Endeavour undocks from the ISS on July 28, 2009, day 14 of mission STS-127, in which the shuttle crew delivered and installed the final two components of the Japanese Experiment Module.
This Endeavour mission notably helped set a record for the most humans in space at the same time in the same vehicle, when, after docking, the ISS and Endeavour crews consisted of 13 people at the station at the same time.
Endeavour astronaut Christopher Cassidy, STS-127 mission specialist, uses a range finding device to determine the distance between the shuttle and the International Space Station during docking activities on July 17, 2009.
Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, appear in the foreground of this perspective view generated from a Landsat satellite image and elevation data collected from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) launched on board Endeavor's mission STS-99 in 2000.
Two radar antennas, one located in the payload bay, the other on a 200-foot mast extending from the payload bay, obtained digital elevation models on a near-global scale, generating what was at the time the most complete high-resolution topographic database of the Earth's surface.
Endeavour prepares to perform the Rendezvous pitch maneuver prior to docking with the International Space Station on November 16, 2008. The Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module can be seen in the cargo bay carrying more than 14,000 pounds of cargo to be delivered to the space station.
After Endeavour docked with the International Space Station, the Expedition 18 crew welcomed the mission STS-126 astronauts aboard. Pictured counterclockwise from the right are astronauts Michael Fincke, Expedition 18 commander; Chris Ferguson, STS-126 commander; Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Donald Pettit, both STS-126 mission specialists; Eric Boe, STS-126 pilot; Shane Kimbrough, Steve Bowen, and Sandra Magnus, all STS-126 mission specialists; and cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov, Expedition 18 flight engineer. Not pictured is astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 18 flight engineer.
Live from the International Space Station, the ISS and Endeavour crews pose for a group portrait following a space-to-Earth video press conference on November 21, 2008. Astronaut Donald Pettit appears at photo center. Just below Pettit is astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshin-Piper. Clockwise from her position are astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Steve Bowen, Eric Boe, Chris Ferguson, and Michael Fincke, along with cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov, and astronauts Sandra Magnus and Gregory Chamitoff.
During the first of five spacewalks to be performed alongside the International Space Station by the shuttle's mission STS-127 crew, Tim Kopra grips the handrail on Harmony or U.S. Node 2 on July 19, 2009. When the Endeavour crew returned to Earth, Kopra stayed onboard the station to serve as flight engineer for ISS expedition duty.
The remote manipulator system arm of the space shuttle Endeavour is seen here transferring the Integrated Cargo Carrier to the International Space Station on July 19, 2009. The ICC is an unpressurized flatbed pallet used to deliver supplies from the shuttle's payload bay.
Seen here landing on Runway 15 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 18, 2009, Endeavour is returning from the STS-127 mission to the International Space Station. Endeavour, the youngest of the shuttle fleet, chalked up some notable firsts for the shuttle program. It was the first shuttle to use a 40-foot-wide drag parachute to help slow it down (seen here), and its second flight, mission STS-47 in 1992, marked the first time an African-American woman (Mae Jemison) had flown in space.
The primary payloads during Endeavour's STS-130 mission were the Tranquility module and the cupola, a robotic control station with six windows around its sides that provided a 360-degree view around the station.
Here we see a view from inside the cupola, taken on February 17, 2010, with a view of the Sahara desert.
SRL-1 (Space Radar Laboratory) included the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C and the X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) and an atmospheric instrument called Measurement of Air Pollution from Satellites (MAPS). The MAPS experiment measured distribution of carbon monoxide in the lower atmosphere. Here we see an image of the City of Washington D.C. taken by SRL during Endeavor's mission STS-59 on April 18, 1994.
Taken by a member of Expedition 22 from aboard the International Space Station, this image shows Endeavour shortly after undocking from the ISS on Feb. 19, 2010. In the foreground is the newly installed Tranquility node and cupola, along with the Canadarm2 and the Japanese Kibo complex.
Within weeks of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, images showed that there was a serious problem with the optical system. The primary mirror had been ground to the wrong shape, resulting in image quality that was drastically lower than expected. Here, astronauts work on installing Hubble's corrective optics during STS-61 Servicing Mission 1.
Before-and-after views of spiral galaxy Messier 100 demonstrate the improvement in the Hubble images after corrective optics were installed on Hubble's aft low gain antenna and on exposed voltage bearing connector covers during Endeavour STS-61 Servicing Mission 1 in 1993.
With its contributions to the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope, which continues to return stunning images from deep within space, space shuttle Endeavour is sure to continue to provide humanity with the gift of exploration years after it has flown its final mission.