04.03.11

NASA Endeavour Shuttle Launch Delayed

The final blastoff for NASA's Endeavour—commanded by the husband of wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords—has been pushed back at least 10 days due to a scheduling glitch, reports Peter J. Boyer.

The scheduled April 19 launch of the space shuttle Endeavour is expected to be postponed for at least 10 days, sources close to the project said Sunday.

The Endeavour is commanded by veteran astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, who, while training for the mission, has also been attending to his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering in a Houston rehabilitation hospital after an assassination attempt in Tucson on January 8. Kelly has said that he hopes his wife will be able to attend the launch, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The two-week mission, which will include four space walks and a rendezvous with the International Space Station, is the last for the Endeavour, and the 134th, and penultimate, mission for the space shuttle program. The 18-story spacecraft, which was rolled out to the launch pad last month, is now expected to blast off on April 29, according to the sources.

Severe thunderstorms rolled through the Florida space coast last week, as the six-man Endeavour crew was preparing for a dress rehearsal for launch day. The storms brought winds gusting up to 90 miles per hour and pelted areas near the launch pad with hailstones. While there was minor damage to the craft, it was not the cause of the postponement, the sources say.

The glitch evidently has to do with a scheduling conflict involving a Russian resupply craft, the Progress, which was to launch a few days after the Endeavour. That craft cannot dock with the International Space Station while the shuttle is there, and NASA had hoped to persuade the Russians to agree to put the Progress—a robotic craft—into a “parking” orbit until the Endeavour had completed its mission. Apparently, agreement could not be reached, and NASA is now looking for a new launch date—likely, April 29—for the Endeavour.

The expected delay would not be the first for this mission. The Endeavour was originally scheduled to launch last November, which would have made possible a space first—an orbital meeting of Endeavour commander Kelly with his twin brother, Scott, who was commanding the International Space Station. That novel moment was missed when the Endeavour’s launch date was "slipped" to February, and subsequently to April 19. Scott Kelly returned to Earth last month in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Mark Kelly took a leave from the mission for several weeks after his wife was shot and resumed command in early February, when he and his wife’s family decided to have Rep. Giffords transferred to the TIRR rehabilitation facility in Houston to continue her recovery.

The Endeavour’s payload includes a $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an eight-ton physics experiment designed to probe space for dark matter that may help to explain the origins of the universe. The spectrometer will be transferred to the space station for installation.

“It’s a bittersweet privilege to be taking Endeavour on its last flight, delivering the last major piece to the ISS,” Kelly told a press conference in Houston two weeks ago.

Peter J. Boyer joined Newsweek/Daily Beast after spending 18 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he wrote on a wide range of subjects, including politics, the military, religion, and sports. Before joining The New Yorker, Boyer was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and a television critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” As a correspondent on the documentary series, Frontline, he won a George Foster Peabody Award, an Emmy, and consecutive Writers Guild Awards for his reporting. Boyer’s New Yorker articles have been included in the anthologies The Best American Political Writing, Best American Science Writing, Best American Spiritual Writing and Best American Crime Writing. He is at work on a book about American evangelism.