U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavor - Photo courtesy of NASA
U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavor - Photo courtesy of NASA

The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour is on its way to the International Space Station, on the second-to-the-last flight of the U.S. shuttle program that is ending this year.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered around the Kennedy Space Center in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida Monday to watch the shuttle lift off with a crew of six astronauts — five Americans and one Italian.

The shuttle separated from its main engine tank and entered the Earth’s orbit several minutes into the flight. The U.S. space agency NASA called the launch a success and reported no problems with the shuttle. It is expected to dock with the International Space Station Wednesday.

The mission is commanded by U.S. astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was critically wounded in a shooting rampage in the state of Arizona in January. Doctors permitted Giffords to take a break from her rehabilitation to attend the launch.

Shortly before blast off, Kelly said reaching for the stars and exploring are “in the DNA” of the United States and “must not stop.”

Endeavour is delivering a $2 billion particle detector to the International Space Station. Scientists hope the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will help them learn more about the origins of the universe by searching for anti-matter and dark matter. The six astronauts also will deliver spare parts, perform maintenance and conduct space walks.

NASA’s associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier says the 16-day mission will not be easy and described the space walks as “very demanding.”

The Endeavour mission originally was scheduled for late April, but electrical problems forced repeated delays. NASA crews worked over the past two weeks to complete repairs to the shuttle.

Endeavour will be retired when it returns on June 1 and put on display in Los Angeles. It began its first mission in 1992 and was the youngest of the three remaining U.S. space shuttles.

NASA will end the shuttle program with the scheduled launch of Atlantis in July. The third shuttle, Discovery, returned from its final flight in March. NASA is retiring the shuttles due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop spacecraft that can travel farther into space.

After the final shuttle flight, the only way for astronauts to reach the orbiting research lab will be on Russian space capsules. Private U.S. companies hope to develop new spacecraft in the coming years that can resume the transportation of crews into space.

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