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Shuttle Launch

Endeavour Launched on Earth-Mapping Mission

Reuters Photo
By Brad Liston

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour roared off 
the launch pad on Friday on a long-delayed radar mapping mission that should 
produce the best-ever three-dimensional images of Earth's surface.

The six astronauts on board will spend 11 days in space bouncing radar 
signals off cities, fields, mountains, forests and other features that shape 
the Earth's surface between the polar regions.

As those signals bounce back into space, they will be collected by antennae 
aboard the orbiter and at the end of a 197-foot mast deployed from the 
shuttle's cargo bay. It is those slightly off-set images, like the ones seen 
in a 3-D movie or picture, that should make this whole-Earth topographical 
map the best ever assembled.

NASA had been trying to launch the mission since September, but technical 
glitches and safety concerns kept Endeavour grounded. A launch attempt last 
week was scrubbed because of cold winds and heavy rain, and mission managers 
used the delay to replace a faulty piece of flight hardware that engineers 
detected late in the countdown.

``Liftoff of space shuttle Endeavour on a 21st century mission, putting Earth 
back on the map,'' said launch commentator Joel Wells as Endeavour sailed 
through the clear blue skies above the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It blasted off at 12:43 p.m. Launch managers delayed the liftoff past the 
scheduled 12:30 p.m. launch time to check several problems including an 
unexplained cabin pressure reading in the crew compartment. Those were 
resolved before launch.

Once the astronauts have stowed their spacesuits and configured shuttle 
systems for orbit, the first major task will be to deploy the radar mast, 
which fully extended will be the longest fixed structure ever to fly in space.

The mission is largely sponsored by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency 
(NIMA), which supplies classified satellite and reconnaissance images to U.S. 
defense and intelligence agencies.

Most of the best-quality maps generated by Endeavour will remain classified. 
Lower resolution maps are to be made available to the public for use by 
scientists, civil engineers and commercial interests.

NASA and NIMA have agreed to make the highest-resolution maps of the United 
States public, but access to the rest of the 30-meter resolution images will 
be restricted and considered on a case-by-case basis, the agencies said.

The international crew, led by commander Kevin Kregel, includes Mamoru Mohri 
of NASDA, the Japanese space agency, and Gerhard Thiele, a German with the 
European Space Agency.

Dom Gorie is the shuttle pilot and Janice Voss and Janet Kavandi are mission 

For the mapping operation, expected to last nine days, the astronauts will 
form two teams working in alternating 12-hour shifts. Unless problems 
develop, all the crew must do is keep the shuttle on course and change the 
digital cassettes used to record the data.

In a preflight interview, Thiele said monotony was not a concern.

``As a first-time flier, I just cannot imagine that going into space will 
ever be boring,'' he said. 

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