CAPE CANAVERAL — After more than a month’s delay, space shuttle Endeavour and seven astronauts thundered into orbit Wednesday on a flight to the international space station, hauling up a veranda for Japan’s enormous lab and looking to set a crowd record.
Success came on launch try No. 6, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the liftoff of man’s first moon landing.
But the mood was dampened somewhat when NASA managers watched the launch video.
Eight or nine pieces of foam insulation came off the external fuel tank during liftoff, and the shuttle was hit at least two or three times, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s space operations chief. Some scuff marks were spotted on the belly, but that probably is coating loss and considered minor, he said.
In fact, Mission Control told the astronauts Wednesday night that the damage — which occurred not quite two minutes into the flight — looked to be less extensive than what occurred on the last flight.
Engineers immediately began reviewing all the launch pictures, standard procedure ever since flights resumed following the Columbia disaster. Gerstenmaier said zoom-in photos will be taken of the entire shuttle right before it docks with the space station Friday, to ascertain whether it suffered any serious damage. It will take days to go through all the data.
“The bottom line is we saw some stuff,” said Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team. “Some of it doesn’t concern us. Some of it you just can’t really speculate on right now. But we have the tools in front of us and the processes in front of us to go clear this vehicle for entry” at the end of the month.
At a news conference, Gerstenmaier noted that the Endeavour crew has shuttle repair kits on board. In case of irreparable damage, the astronauts could move into the space station for two to three months and await rescue by another shuttle.
Columbia was destroyed during re-entry in 2003 because of a hole in its wing, left there by flyaway foam at liftoff.
Endeavour blasted off a little after 6 p.m. from its seaside pad — the same one used to launch Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969 — a welcome sight for shuttle workers who had to overcome hydrogen gas leaks last month and, since the weekend, thunderstorms.
The skies finally cleared, allowing commander Mark Polansky and his crew to embark on their 16-day adventure. One more holdup and they would have tied a record for the most shuttle launch delays.
“The weather is finally cooperating, so it is now time to fly,” launch director Pete Nickolenko called out to the crew. “Persistence pays off.”
The astronauts will catch up Friday afternoon with the space station, which was soaring more than 220 miles above the Pacific at launch time. When they do, it will be the first time 13 people are together in space. Ten is the previous record. The doubling of the space station crew a few months ago, to six, makes the new record possible.
The shuttle will remain docked at the space station for nearly two weeks. During that time, the shuttle astronauts will help install the third and final piece of the Japanese space station lab, a porch for outdoor experiments. The first two parts went up on shuttle flights last year.
Five spacewalks are planned to help attach the new porch to the Japanese lab, give the space station some new batteries and perform other maintenance.
Endeavour also is carrying up hundreds of pounds of food for the station crew and a fresh station resident .
All of the major space station partners will be represented once Endeavour arrives. The combined crews will have seven Americans, two Canadians, two Russians, one Japanese and one Belgian. All but one are men.
NASA was anxious to get Endeavour flying, given time is running out on the shuttle program. The space agency, at least, finally has a new administrator to oversee everything. Former shuttle commander Charles Bolden was confirmed by the Senate less than two hours after Endeavour’s liftoff. He fills a vacancy left by Michael Griffin’s departure in January.
Only eight shuttle flights remain, including this one, before NASA retires the fleet. The White House wants those missions completed by the end of next year if possible. Each one is dedicated to finishing the space station — now 81 percent complete — and hauling up supplies and big spare parts that are too big to fly on any other rocketship.
The lengthy delay means Endeavour will be in orbit on the 40th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon, Monday. The Endeavour crew claimed its own record with the launch. Rookie astronaut Christopher Cassidy became the 500th person in space.