And they’re off!

Space shuttle Endeavor lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:14 a.m. this morning. Clouds had delayed the launch the day before, and while the sky was still dark, the control room took advantage of a hole in the clouds to set Endeavor on its way. Great NASA footage of the event:

Endeavor is the 130th space shuttle flight, and is also one of the last; at least for the current space shuttle program. Only four manned shuttle flights are scheduled to take place after Endeavor.

After the shuttle Columbia exploded on reentry in 2003, NASA and the review panels set up to investigate the incidence made the decision that fixing the exact problem that caused the Columbia disaster wasn’t enough. It was time for a new fleet of space shuttles, and the old ones would be retired in 2010.

Besides building new shuttles, NASA is, at the moment, struggling to define what the tasks and goals of its manned space flight program should be. Should we go to the moon? To Mars? Somewhere further? What would each task accomplish in the long and short term?

The situation is complicated by, of course, how much money NASA can expect in coming years and what politicians have to say about where they should invest their resources. Obama’s recent budget proposal calls (mostly) for the cancellation of the Constellation program, which would have sent astronauts back to the moon by 2020. However, simply getting astronauts back on the moon just for the sake of going might not really serve any great scientific purpose.

So there’s a lot of mayhem around NASA right now – and the launch of Endeavor is a breath of fresh air. It refocuses the national eye on what NASA really does. On the awesomeness of manned space flight.

Plus, Endeavor has a really amazing mission. The shuttle will deliver the last piece of the international space station – the Node 3, a.k.a. Tranquility, and almost a.k.a. “Colbert”.

In 2009 NASA held an online contest to help find a name for Node 3. NASA had their suggestions, including “Tranquility” and “Serenity”, as well as a write-in category. As a joke, Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert suggested that his viewers go take the poll and write in his name. Unexpected by NASA, and perhaps even the host himself, the write-ins to name Node 3 “Colbert” swept the contest, earning over 230,000 votes. It even beat the runner up (“Serenity”) by 40,000 votes.

NASA chose to go with one of the names they suggested: “Tranquility,” in memory of the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 in the sea of tranquility, 40 years ago. But they did name a treadmill stationed on Node3 C.O.L.B.E.R.T., which stands for “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.”

Enjoy your time in orbit, Endeavor. And come home safe.

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