Space Shuttle Endeavour Embarks On Final Mission

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The Endeavour's earlier launch was delayed because of technical issues. After this mission, it will become a museum exhibit in Los Angeles. NASA has just one shuttle launch left — the last flight of Atlantis is scheduled for this summer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NASA is counting down to the final flight of space shuttle Endeavor. Endeavor is scheduled to blast off later this morning. After this mission, it will become an exhibit at a museum here in Los Angles. And NASA will have just one shuttle launch left. The last flight of Atlantis, scheduled for this summer. NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce joins us to talk about Endeavor's final trip and what's next for NASA after it retires its aging shuttles.

Good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Nell, Endeavor was - quite famously, got a lot of press when it was supposed to take off a couple of weeks ago.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. Endeavor was supposed to go up at the end of April. But they had an electrical glitch in the heating system, and that was discovered during the countdown. So they called that launch attempt off.

And it was disappointing, because a lot of people had come to see it. There's only a couple of shuttle launches left. President Obama was there for that launch attempt. So was Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who's recovering from an attack earlier this year. Her husband is an astronaut and the commander of this mission. According to her Facebook page, she's back for today's launch attempt. But the president is not.

MONTAGNE: And somewhat overshadowed, was the actual, you know, the experiments and whatnot. What is Endeavor going to do on this last flight?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. It's taking up something called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. And this is a $2 billion physics experiment that's been in the works for about 16 years. It involves hundreds of physicists in over a dozen countries. And it's basically a particle detector that's going to sift through cosmic rays, looking for evidence of weird forms of matter. Things like antimatter and dark matter.

And at one point after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, NASA canceled this mission. But physicists lobbied to get it reinstated and now it's finally getting to fly. Astronauts are going to attach this thing to the International Space Station.

MONTAGNE: And Endeavor will be back to Earth in a few weeks, but how long will the physics experiment you just described go on?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, it will stay there for the life of the space station, so a decade or more.

MONTAGNE; So if NASA has just one shuttle flight left after this one, how are astronauts going to get up and down, to and from the space station, once the U.S. no longer has a spaceship to carry them up?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for a few years, we're going to rely on the Russians. Basically, NASA will buy seats on their rockets and capsules to get our astronauts up to the space station.

But several U.S. firms are developing rockets and spacecraft that could provide commercial space flight services. So NASA is hoping to use these as a kind of taxi service to Low Earth orbit. And that will let NASA focus on new technologies for more ambitious missions that could go farther out into space.

MONTAGNE: And the final shuttle flight for NASA - that would be space shuttle Atlantis. As I've just said, it's due to takeoff this summer. When exactly is it likely to happen?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, that's now expected for early to mid July. It was going to happen a little earlier, but this recent delay in launching Endeavor pushed it back. And that's going to be your last chance ever to see one of these spaceships takeoff after NASA has been flying them for 30 years. After that you'll have to see them in museums.

Endeavor is going to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Discovery is going to the Smithsonian. And Atlantis is going to Kennedy Space Center's Visitor's Center.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR's science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce.

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