After many false starts, one of the final remaining space shuttle missions got under way this evening with the liftoff of the Endeavour orbiter from Kennedy nasSpace Center in Florida. The shuttle blasted off at 6:03 P.M. (Eastern Daylight Time) on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), after hydrogen leaks twice delayed June launch attempts and bad weather thwarted three liftoff opportunities earlier this month.

Only two past shuttle missions, both launching on the seventh attempt, endured more delays.

The seven-member crew of Endeavour will deliver to the ISS components of a Japanese experiment module, including a "front porch" section that will allow for science experiments in an exposed space environment. Four members of the shuttle crew, pairing off into two teams, will conduct five spacewalks to install the Japanese segments as well as new batteries for an aging solar array. They will also stash spare parts for the station on an external cargo platform.

While en route to the ISS for a Friday afternoon rendezvous, the Endeavour crew will spend much of the day tomorrow inspecting the shuttle's heat shield with a boom-mounted sensor. The examination, which became standard procedure on shuttle missions following the 2003 Columbia disaster, looks for any damage the thermal-protection tiles may have suffered during liftoff. During the May mission of space shuttle Atlantis to the Hubble Space Telescope, the robotic-arm inspection revealed some slight nicking where the shuttle's wing joined the body, but the damage was deemed nonthreatening and the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere and landed safely 12 days later.

After the Endeavour mission, only seven scheduled shuttle flights remain on the calendar before the program's planned retirement next year.