Space shuttle Endeavour is pictured during its slow move from High Bay 3 in the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
updated 3/24/2011 7:46:57 PM ET 2011-03-24T23:46:57

Six astronauts are almost ready to fly NASA's space shuttle Endeavour on one last mission – a space voyage slated to blast off on April 19.

Endeavour is slated to fly to the International Space Station, where it will deliver a $2 billion astrophysics experiment to detect cosmic rays from space. The mission will be the second-to-last orbiter flight before NASA retires its 30-year space shuttle program for good.

Astronaut Mark Kelly will command Endeavour's 14-day mission, which will feature four spacewalks jam-packed with tasks to upgrade the space station.

"This is my fourth flight to the International Space Station on the space shuttle," Kelly said Thursday at a news conference here at NASA's Johnson Space Center. The shuttle has "been an incredible success over a long period of time. It's sad to see it go."

Kelly has been juggling space shuttle training while caring for his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head by a constituent in January during an attack at a Tucson grocery store that killed six people and injured 13.

Kelly made the difficult decision in February to resume training with his crew and push on with the mission despite his wife's injury. He said today that she has been improving every day and credited his experience as a veteran of three space missions for helping him get through the grueling training schedule.

"I think it would have been really challenging if this was my first shuttle flight," Kelly said. "Having that experience certainly makes it very manageable to be able to handle what's going on in my personal life and handle this mission. I've given this mission everything I would have if the events of January had not happened." 

Veteran crew
Riding along with Kelly on Endeavour's STS-134 mission are pilot Gregory H. Johnson, who piloted Endeavour on the orbiter's STS-123 mission in March 2008; mission specialists Michael Fincke, who has served two long-duration stints living and working onboard the International Space Station; Greg Chamitoff, who has logged a total of 183 days in space; Andrew Feustel, who was a member of the shuttle Atlantis' STS-125 mission in May 2009; and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, who has flown twice before to the space station.

Endeavour's primary payload is a science experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a particle detector 16 years in the making that will analyze particles called cosmic rays for what they can tell us about the origins and makeup of the universe.

"It's going to be facing out into the heavens and see what it can see," Fincke said. "We're just looking forward to seeing what it shows."

In addition to the AMS, Endeavour will also carry a container of spare hardware and science experiments to help the space station continue running smoothly after the space shuttles retire.

A bittersweet ending
Endeavour will be prepared for permanent display at a museum after it returns to Earth from its final mission. NASA administrator Charles Bolden plans to announce on April 12 where the three space shuttle orbiters will be retired.

"Of course the last flight of each of these vehicles is bittersweet for all of us," said Gary Horlacher, the lead flight director for Endeavour's STS-134 mission. "Certainly it's going to be a bittersweet moment to see it back on the runway" after it lands at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

After Endeavour's STS-134 mission, NASA has just one more space shuttle flight planned. The STS-135 mission of the shuttle Atlantis is slated to launch June 28, as long as NASA receives

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the necessary funding.

"It looks like the budget is lined up to support that mission," said John Shannon, NASA space shuttle program manager. "Atlantis is being processed. From a program standpoint it looks like we're going to go fly that mission."

Atlantis will carry four astronauts and a huge haul of spare parts to the space station. No spacewalks are planned for that mission, making STS-134 the last time space shuttle astronauts will ever perform a spacewalk at the station. Mission specialists Fincke, Feustel and Chamitoff will conduct those excursions.

"I'm just really excited to be able to go outside with Greg and Mike and share some great experiences and get some amazing views," said Feustel, who was also on the spacewalking team during NASA's final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2008. "We hope to take some spectacular photos while we're out there."

After the AMS is installed, NASA will have no major pieces of new hardware to attach to the International Space Station, which is now officially complete from a U.S. standpoint. However, NASA plans to continue operating the orbiting outpost until at least 2020, and mission managers won't rule out the possibility that future additions to the station could be planned.

"One of the beauties of having a space station is it has the ability to expand and change," said Kirk Shireman, ISS deputy program manager. "There's certainly the capability to add more modules. We have the ability to evolve over time and adapt and I hope that’s what we'll do."

You can follow senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter@Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  2. Editor's note:
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  1. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Above: Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014
  2. Image: US Senate holds hearing on Gun Control
    Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA
    Slideshow (26) Former Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords


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