Image: Crew at pad
NASA
Endeavour's crew gets a photo opportunity at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. From left are commander George Zamka; pilot Terry Virts; and mission specialists Kathryn Hire, Stephen Robinson, Nicholas Patrick and Robert Behnken.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/8/2010 5:44:14 AM ET 2010-02-08T10:44:14

NASA begins its final year of shuttle flights with the launch of six astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, carrying the last major pieces of the International Space Station.

The STS-130 mission is delivering and installing the Tranquility connecting node as well as a seven-window observation station known as the Cupola. The schedule calls for three spacewalks to hook up all the connections. Other tasks include repairing the space station's urine-recycling system and delivering a ton of supplies and experiments.

After STS-130, NASA is planning only four more space shuttle flights. Here's a look at the crew for Endeavour's mission:

Shuttle commander George Zamka is personally delivering some special rocks to the International Space Station: four chips from the moon and a stone from the top of Mount Everest.

The fragments of moon rock were gathered by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, and carried up Mount Everest by a former shuttle astronaut last spring. Zamka accepted the rocks last month and said he would make sure they got into the new space station compartments flying up on Endeavour. They will serve, he said, “as a reminder to all of the astronauts who are up there, what human beings can do and what our challenges are.”

Image: George Zamka
NASA
George Zamka
This is Zamka’s second spaceflight in his 12 years as an astronaut.

The 47-year-old Marine colonel grew up in New York, Rochester Hills, Mich., and Medellin, Colombia, his mother’s hometown. He recalls watching planes fly over his Medellin school on final approach to the airport. It was “a great enticement” for pursuing an aviation career. His Colombian pilot uncle also was an influence.

Zamka went on to become a fighter pilot. He and wife Elisa have a 15-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy.

Pilot Terry Virts’ childhood revolved around the space program.

He grew up in Columbia, Md., not far from Goddard Space Flight Center, where his parents worked. Mom was a secretary, and dad was a technician for NASA’s Landsat satellites.

Image: Terry Virts
NASA
Terry Virts
Virts, 42, said his first book as a child was about the Apollo moon landings and his bedroom was adorned with rocket and airplane posters. He’d occasionally accompany his father to the satellite control room at Goddard in the 1970s.

“It’s kind of strange, from being a little kid there at NASA, and now here I am,” he said.
Virts joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot and, ultimately, a colonel. NASA picked him as an astronaut in 2000. He’s waited 10 years for his first spaceflight.

He acknowledges “it’s obviously a dangerous thing,” but draws strength from the weekly prayers offered up for him at his church and his children’s school back home in Houston. Wife Stacy is a substitute teacher. They have an 8-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy.

Stephen Robinson’s last two shuttle flights were high on the media radar. John Glenn was his crew mate in 1998, and his next mission in 2005 was the first to follow the Columbia disaster.

Image: Stephen Robinson
NASA
Stephen Robinson
He’s enjoying the low profile this time around. “I prefer to be on the side of the camera that isn’t shining,” Robinson said.

Robinson, 54, a mechanical engineer from Sacramento, Calif., started working for NASA in 1975 while in college. After stints as a graphic artist, surveyor and radio DJ, he signed on full time in 1979 as a research scientist. The astronaut corps came calling in 1995. This is his fourth shuttle mission.

“To be there for the last module to go up is just a wonderful opportunity, I think, for all of us. And it’s a little bittersweet, too, you know,” he said. “There’s ... an impending sense of completion for the space station. Now it’s going to start being used more and more as a laboratory, the whole reason it was built, so we’re all really excited about that.”

Robinson will supervise the three spacewalks from inside. On his last flight, he had to venture beneath the shuttle’s belly to remove some fabric that was jutting out, so he and his crew could return safely to Earth. Monitoring from inside this time is like being an air traffic controller, he said, or an orchestra conductor.

Speaking of music, Robinson plays in two bands and is learning the steel guitar and cello. He plans to serenade his crew mates in orbit, playing the guitar that’s already at the space station.

Kay Hire used to launch space shuttles. Now she flies in them.

The 50-year-old Navy Reserve captain is making her second spaceflight — and her first in 12 years.

She grew up in Mobile, Ala., the daughter of a land surveyor. She’d use her father’s surveying equipment to look at craters on the moon. “I was just totally fascinated” with space, she said.

Hire was commissioned as a Naval officer in 1981 and, 12 years later, became the first woman in the U.S. military to be assigned to a combat air crew. She took part in Atlantic and Caribbean patrol operations.

She began working at Kennedy Space Center in 1989 as an engineer and became an astronaut in 1995. She rocketed into orbit in 1998, then was recalled to active naval duty.

Image: Kathryn Hire
NASA
Kathryn Hire
Hire will help operate the shuttle robot arm and raise the window shutters of the new space station lookout, once it’s in the proper place. The domed observation deck will offer panoramic views of Earth and outer space.

“Honestly, I’m not really hung up on being the first one” to look out the windows, she said, “just so long as I get a view at some point.”

Robert Behnke, the son of a construction worker, grew up riding in dump trucks and on backhoes long before Bob the Builder became a hit on children's TV.

Now, Behnke really is Bob the Builder, tackling the last major construction job at the International Space Station. As lead spacewalker, he will venture outside three times, helping to install a new space station room as well as a lookout.

Image: Robert Behnken
NASA
Robert Behnken
The mechanical aptitude he picked up as a child in St. Ann, Mo., is paying off now. “It really does match up well,” he said.

Behnken, 39, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, is making his second shuttle flight in two years. He became an astronaut in 2000.

He is married to astronaut Megan McArthur, who flew to the Hubble Space Telescope in May. They had been married just a month in 2008 when Hurricane Ike submerged their Houston home with 3 feet of water. Their new house is almost finished — on the same property, but with flood guards.

Nicholas Patrick was inspired by the Apollo moon landings, so much so that he left his native England to pursue a career in aviation and aerospace.

Image: Nicholas Patrick
NASA
Nicholas Patrick
After working for General Electric and Boeing as an engineer, Patrick was selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1998. He flew to the space station in 2006.

Patrick, 45, will perform three spacewalks on this mission, helping to install a new room at the International Space Station. He will undo the big bolts holding down the window shutters on the new observation deck and, once the shutters are cranked open from inside, take pleasure in looking at the nine faces looking out at him.

The space station is “as big as it’s ever been, and we’ll make it bigger,” he said.

His wife, Dr. Rossanna Palomino, is a pediatrician. They have two boys and one girl, ages 3 to 7.

He was born in North Yorkshire and became a U.S. citizen in 1994.

This report includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and NASA.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: Pictures from space

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  1. Angling for a good shot

    Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have used hand-held cameras to take more than 450,000 photographs of Earth as seen from their orbiting outpost about 220 miles up in the skies since November 2000.

    The flexibility to look off to the side, change lenses and choose interesting features to photograph are some of the advantages over stationary Earth-observing cameras on satellites, noted Cindy Evans at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston where the database of images is maintained.

    Here, astronaut Donald Pettit photographs the Earth from the Destiny Laboratory on the International Space Station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Playing in the sand

    Among the best applications of ISS Earth Observation, according to Evans, is the perspective it offers on human development. For example, this Jan. 13, 2010, image of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates shows several of the city's features built with an aerial perspective in mind.

    On the left is Palm Jumeira, a palm tree – shaped island made with more than 1.7 billion cubic feet of dredged sand. On the right are the World Islands, which were completed in 2008 with 11.3 billion cubic feet of sand. The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper at 2,217 feet that opened on Jan. 4, can be picked out in the lower right of the image. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volcanic eruption caught in the act

    On June 12, 2009, the space station made a fortunate pass over Sarychev Volcano in the Kuril Islands northeast of Japan during the early stage of an eruption. How the clouds on top of and around the ash plume formed are a source of keen scientific interest, noted Evans. "It was one of a kind from the scientific value of understanding how an eruption starts," Evans said.

    (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Forest clearing in Bolivia

    Astronauts have used hand-held cameras to photograph the Earth for more than 45 years, providing an archive to draw from to show land use changes through time, according to Evans. The images show progressive clearing of the tropical rainforest in eastern Bolivia to make room for agricultural fields.

    The image on the left was taken from the space shuttle in November 1995. The image on the right is a slightly closer view of the same region made from the space station on November 2008. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Little jewels of the ocean'

    As astronauts orbit over the western Pacific Ocean, they don't see land for long stretches of time. Then coral reefs and atolls appear and the astronauts tend to reach for the camera, noted Evans. "They see these little jewels in the ocean and they can capture them in great detail," she said.

    Nukuoro Atoll in the Caroline Islands northeast of Papua New Guinea was photographed on May 31, 2006. The 42 patches of vegetation on the island face the dominant easterly winds. About 900 people live in the settlements on the inland side of the forest patches. Space station images of coral reefs, Evans noted, are used by conservationists to monitor the health of these habitats. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A total solar eclipse from space

    Solar eclipse enthusiasts will travel to the ends of the Earth to watch the moon momentarily blot the sun from the sky. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station caught this view of the moon's shadow sweeping across Turkey, northern Cyprus, and the Mediterranean Sea during the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Keeping an eye on their own

    Astronauts aboard the International Space Station kept tabs on the space shuttle's return to flight following the 2003 loss of Columbia over Texas. This image was made on April 6, 2005, as the space station passed over Kennedy Space Center in Florida as shuttle Discovery was being rolled out to launch pad 39-B.

    The shuttle mated with solid-fuel booster rockets and an orange external fuel tank is about halfway in to the 13-hour journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building, at the left of the image, and the launch pad at the top center. The shuttle successfully launched on July 26, 2005, and delivered supplies to the space station. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. London all lit up

    Cities are among the most popular astronaut images downloaded from NASA, Evans said. "People are fascinated that not just a satellite looks down at them, but that people orbiting the Earth are looking down at these urban regions," she said.

    This Feb. 4, 2003, photograph of London gives a clear view of the city's urban density. The downtown core is the brightest and the density steady drops off until it reaches an encircling roadway called the Orbital. The fuzzy patches are thought to be clouds or areas of fog. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Going green

    Some crew members, according to Evans, are fascinated by aurora – the nighttime lights in the skies that occur when oxygen and nitrogen atoms are bombarded by charged solar particles. They "and spend a good deal of time learning how to take photographs of the aurora that are meaningful." Expedition Six crew member Donald Petit took several pictures of aurora in January and February of 2003, including this one of a green aurora over the night side of Earth just after sunset. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A fiery landscape

    As fire licked across the Simpson Desert in Australia, it left behind tell-tale scars of its passing. The orange streaks in this Nov. 23, 2002, image, NASA explains, were created as fire burned the desert scrub, exposing the underlying dune sand.

    The pattern suggests the fire moved into the view from the lower left and followed the rippled ribbon of the dunes in the direction of the prevailing winds. Then, the wind shifted direction about 90 degrees and blew the flames across the dunes in tendril-like streaks. As the vegetation grows back, the scars will disappear. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A brewing storm

    From the very beginning of astronaut photography aboard the International Space Station, brewing storms were a subject of interest. Shown here is the first image downlinked from the station – a mass of storm clouds building over the Earth. The image was made with an Electrical Still Camera. Today, the space station is equipped with high-end Nikon digital cameras. (Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
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