A Brief History of Endeavour – NASA's Space Shuttle Built from Spares

By Spencer Hart on at

Fifteen years ago today NASA launched the space shuttle Endeavour on a mission to take the highly detailed images of the Earth's surface. It was the company's final, and most advanced space shuttle.

To celebrate the lifetime of Endeavour, here are some interesting facts about this amazing spacecraft. From being given its name by kids, to a Commander's emotional sign-off on its final voyage.

Making a Name for Itself

Its official designation is OV-105 (orbiter vehicle), but was also named after HMS Endeavour, the British ship that Captain James Cook used on his first voyage of discovery in 1768. The name was chosen in a national competition involving students from elementary and secondary schools. The children were asked to select a named based on an exploratory sea vessel and almost a third of entries nominated Endeavour.

It's also the reason Endeavour is spelt using the English spelling, and not the incorrect American 'Endeavor'. This has caused some confusion in the past, including when the very intelligent people at NASA painted 'Go Endeavor' on the shuttle's launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. When someone phoned in to point out the mistake, the sign was quickly changed.

Time to Spare

The United States Congress authorised construction of Endeavour in 1987, and it was the final of five shuttles to be built. The programme was designed to replace Challenger, the space shuttle that broke apart 73 seconds after take-off on its tenth mission.

NASA had ordered structural spares during the construction of Discovery and Atlantis, so these parts were used to build Endeavour. This method of construction was chosen above refitting Enterprise, or building an entirely new vessel, as it was the cheaper alternative.

The shuttle was the first to gain a drag chute, which reduced its rollout distance from 2,000 metres to 1,000 metres. Other upgrades included improved plumbing and electrical systems, which increased the maximum possible mission time to 28 days; and a 'glass cockpit', which was a multi-functional, electronic display that was a great advancement on old CRT screens that were previously used.

Construction was completed on the 6th of July 1990, and was delivered the the Kennedy Space Center in May 1991.

Mission Statement

Endeavour certainly left it's mark on history, with a number of important tasks and record breaking missions. It's first mission was to complete an operation started by Challenger, to capture and repair INTELSAT VI.

This satellite required a replacement rocket motor, but Endeavour was not equipped with the correct tools to retrieve a satellite. This resulted in a groundbreaking spacewalk in which three people captured the satellite by hand. Once the new motor was attached it allowed the INTELSAT VI to enter a correct orbit and provided a relay link for the equivalent of 120,000 simultaneous phone calls and three television channels.

Between rescue attempts the shuttle crew also conducted medical tests which assessed the human body's performance in microgravity, and recorded footage for an educational video.

Endeavour's first mission was the first time four spacewalks were conducted on a single flight, and one of them was the second-longest in space history, with two astronauts spending eight hours and seven minutes in space (take that Sandra Bullock).

On the 11th of February 2000, Endeavour began a mission to take a 'snapshot of our planet'. The 11-day operation would produce the most complete 3D map of the Earth's surface, which was 30x more detailed than previous images. The best quality images were classified for use by the US Military and intelligence agencies, but lower resolutions maps were released to the public.

Endeavour was also used in a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. After the $2.5bn (£1.65bn) project was launched, NASA realised something was wrong when the images sent back were blurred and out of focus. Seven astronauts undertook a seven day mission to fix the telescope's main mirror.

The space shuttle also hosted the first married couple on a single mission, Mark Lee and Jan Davis. The couple were placed on different teams and worked different shift patterns (presumably to avoid typical marital spats).

Final Flight

Endeavour's final flight was on the 16th of May 2011. It was the vessel's 25th overall mission, having already clocked 166 million km in space. This is larger than the distance between the Sun and the Earth.

Before the countdown began, Commander Mark Kelly said in a radio call to launch controllers: "This mission represents the power of teamwork, commitment and exploration. It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop."

Endeavour is now on display at the California Science Center.

[Image Credits: Wikipedia]