CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — After a poignant wake-up song requested by wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her astronaut husband, Endeavour and the two other space shuttles each marked milestones Tuesday for the retiring fleet.
In its first full work day in space for its last flight, Endeavour's commander Mark Kelly and his crew conducted their final post-launch inspection for damage to the shuttle heat shield — a routine procedure started after the 2003 Columbia disaster. Initial results "looked really good" for NASA's youngest shuttle, lead flight director Gary Horlacher said Tuesday.
Back at the Kennedy Space Center launch site, Atlantis, which will fly the final shuttle mission of the 30-year program, moved for the last time from its hangar to the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. And Discovery, which flew its last mission in February, had some of its remaining toxic fuel drained from its smaller engines. It will go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum hangar outside of Washington's Dulles Airport.
In orbit, Endeavour was catching up to the International Space Station, aiming for a 6:16 a.m. EDT Wednesday docking. Endeavour's day started with the traditional music wake-up call. The song: "Beautiful Day" by U2.
It's the same song Giffords picked for Mark Kelly in 2006 when they were just dating. But this time the message-of-hope lyrics seemed to have a special meaning given her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head Jan. 8 in Arizona. U2's Bono, who came up with the lyrics, has said the song is about a man who has lost everything but finds joy in what he still has.
This time the song was from Giffords and Kelly's two daughters.
"It's good to be waking up in space again," Kelly radioed back to Earth. "I want to thank Gabby, Claudia and Claire for that great wake-up song. It's always good to hear U2 and 'Beautiful Day' in space."
Giffords, a three-term Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, has recovered enough from the shooting to twice fly to from Houston to Florida for launch attempts. When Endeavour's five Americans and one Italian got off the ground on Monday, she watched in private from a wheelchair on the roof of the launch control center and remarked, "good stuff, good stuff," according to her staff.
Most of Tuesday was spent looking for — and initially not seeing any — damage to the shuttle's delicate heat shield from launch. On Monday, NASA officials said initial photographs show only a couple of small bits of insulating foam came off the fuel tank during the crucial phase of liftoff. It was heat shield damage from foam that shed during launch that led to the fatal 2003 break up of Columbia during its return to Earth.
"The performance of the crew and the vehicle is outstanding at this point," NASA deputy shuttle program manager LeRoy Cain said Tuesday afternoon.
Endeavour launched using an older version external fuel tank that was slightly damaged — and then repaired with 103 patches — during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Cain said the tank not only performed well, it did better than NASA expected with only five slight losses of foam that seem minor.
Endeavour is on a 16-day mission — the second to last space shuttle flight and last for Endeavour. Its main mission is to attach to the space station a $2 billion physics experiment: a giant magnet that looks for antimatter and dark energy.