The fifth-to-last mission of the space shuttle program got under way early Monday, as the shuttle Endeavour rocketed up from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin a 13-day mission to the International Space Station. The orbiter launched at 4:14 A.M. (Eastern Standard Time), after a launch opportunity Sunday morning was scrapped due to cloud cover.

The STS-130 mission will deliver to the station two major pieces of European-built hardware: a pressurized node known as Tranquility that will house life-support and exercise equipment, and an observation cupola that will be mated to Tranquility to provide panoramic views of the station, Earth and the stars. Once Tranquility and its cupola are installed, the station will be about 90 percent complete, according to NASA.

A flight plan compiled for Spaceflight Now states that the crew will begin its robotic-arm survey of the orbiter's heat shield late Monday night, a standard procedure to look for damage sustained during launch that could threaten the shuttle during atmospheric re-entry. Endeavour will close in on the space station Tuesday night before a planned docking at 12:53 A.M. Wednesday.

The four remaining shuttle missions, the last of which is currently scheduled for September, are also construction runs to the space station. Beyond those missions, the future of manned spaceflight in the U.S. is unclear. President Obama's 2011 budget request, delivered February 1, would cancel the successor program to the shuttle, known as Constellation, and rely on the private sector to eventually return astronauts to orbit.

Launch photo: NASA/Jim Grossmann