Shuttle’s Final Night Launch Slated for Feb. 7

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NASA has set a firm early February launch date for the Space Shuttle Endeavour to deliver a new module and observation portal to the international space station.

The decision, announced Jan. 27, officially targets Endeavour for a planned 4:39 a.m. EST blastoff Feb. 7 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The predawn liftoff is expected to be NASA’s last space shuttle launch in darkness.

Top shuttle mission managers met Jan. 27 to discuss Endeavour’s readiness for the planned 13-day mission.

“This is really a complicated mission,” NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, William Gerstenmaier, told reporters after the flight readiness review.

Commanded by veteran astronaut George Zamka, Endeavour’s five-man, one-woman crew will deliver the station’s new Tranquility module and a long-awaited observation portal, called the Cupola.

The Tranquility module is a 7.3-meter cylinder that is nearly 4.5 meters wide and weighs about 18,143 kilograms. It will eventually serve as the home for the station’s robotic arm controls, life support systems and exercise gear. One of the module’s many connection ports will be occupied by the Cupola, a seven-window addition that promises to give astronauts a sweeping, panoramic view of Earth, space and visiting spacecraft, NASA officials said.

Endeavour astronauts will perform three spacewalks during the mission. Their shuttle will also be hauling spare parts for the space station’s broken urine and water recycling system, mission managers said.

In January, two of the Tranquility module’s four custom-made ammonia coolant hoses failed a standard preflight test, prompting engineers to cobble together replacements in time for Endeavour’s upcoming launch. The ammonia hoses were about 4.8 meters long — longer than typical station hoses — so NASA engineers built new ones by combining shorter hoses into bigger segments.

“Right now, everything is looking very, very good,” said NASA launch director Mike Leinbach.

NASA will have several chances to launch Endeavour ahead of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket slated to loft the space agency’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory to study the sun. That solar probe is due to lift off Feb. 9, NASA space science officials said Jan. 21.

Endeavour’s flight will be the 130th shuttle flight since NASA began launching the winged, reusable space planes in April 1981. The upcoming night launch is the first of NASA’s five final shuttle missions planned in 2010 before the orbiter fleet is retired  this fall.