NASA braved below-freezing temperatures in Florida on Wednesday to move the space shuttle Endeavour to its seaside launch pad for next month's planned blastoff to the International Space Station.
Endeavour is due to lift off from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:39 a.m. ET Feb. 7, on the first of NASA's five final shuttle missions, leading up to the three-orbiter fleet's scheduled retirement this fall. The predawn liftoff is expected to be the last night launch of a NASA space shuttle.
A cold front passing over central Florida forced NASA to make extra preparations for Wednesday's launch pad trek to combat the bone-chilling weather.
"We're not really worried so much about the hardware, we're worried about the 'software' — the people," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told Space.com. "Nobody will be outside along the way for more than a half-hour."
NASA's safety rules for shuttle launches prohibit liftoff attempts in temperatures colder than 36 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), but chilly weather alone is not enough to delay a space shuttle's trip to the launch pad, Beutel said. Wednesday's shuttle move began at 4:13 a.m. ET.
"Certain parts of the orbiter have to be kept warm at a certain temperature, but that's part of our standard operations anyway," Beutel said.
NASA was more concerned for its shuttle engineers and technicians accompanying the orbiter on its 3.4-mile (5.4-kilometer) trek to the launch pad, a journey that took about six hours.
Dozens of technicians accompany the shuttle to the launch pad, many stationed inside the massive Apollo-era crawler carrier vehicle that hauls the combined 12 million-pound (5.4 million-kilogram) load to the launch pad. Instead of spending the entire time walking alongside the shuttle or standing atop the crawler carrier's deck, the workers rotated out every 30 minutes to warm up inside nearby vans or other vehicles, Beutel said.
Endeavour's STS-130 mission will mark NASA's first shuttle flight of 2010 and will deliver a brand-new connecting module, called Tranquility, to the International Space Station. The shuttle is also carrying a new observation deck called the Cupola, which will be attached to Tranquility to provide a seven-window vista of the station's exterior and Earth below. Three spacewalks are planned for the mission.
The Tranquility node and the Cupola will be delivered to Endeavour at the launch pad next week, Beutel said.
Endeavour commander George Zamka and his crew are expected to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center spaceport on Jan. 19 to begin several days of final training and a launch dress rehearsal. Top NASA shuttle officials plan to meet Jan. 27 in a standard review to determine if Endeavour is ready to launch next month.
"That should put us on target to be able to support a Feb. 7 liftoff," Beutel said, adding that shuttle workers currently have a full week of buffer time to handle any unexpected glitches with launch preparations.