In a rare middle-of-the-night launch, the shuttle blasted off with an almost blinding flash. But the darkness meant fewer pictures than usual to look for signs of possible damage to the spacecraft during the climb to orbit. NASA knew the nighttime launch would come at a photographic cost. But past successes at preventing the shuttle’s fuel tank from losing big chunks of foam insulation during liftoff and the accuracy of heat shield inspections convinced managers the night launch was a good choice. Putting together Dextre, the robot, will be one of the main jobs for the seven Endeavour astronauts, who are scheduled to blast off in the wee hours of Tuesday, less than three weeks after the last shuttle flight. They’re also delivering the first piece of Japan’s massive Kibo space station lab, a float-in closet for storing tools, experiments and spare parts. For the first time, each of the five major international space station partners will own a piece of the real estate. At 16 days, the mission will be NASA’s longest space station trip ever and will include five spacewalks, the most ever performed while a shuttle is docked there. Three of those spacewalks will feature Dextre, which is sure to steal the show.
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