San Francisco (CA) - The space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of seven astronauts have reached orbit after a successful launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The near perfect liftoff was slightly marred by several pieces of debris falling off the external fuel tank onto the orbiter.
NASA is expected to spend the next few days analyzing three marks left on the heat-resistant tiles to determine if they could potentially affect the shuttle upon re-entry.
However, NASA official William H. Gerstenmaier told reporters that the agency didn't consider the marks to be "an issue" as they indicated damage to the coating, rather than deep gouges.
"The issues will be in the back of the vehicle," said Gerstenmaier. The associate administrator for space operations also noted that the mission would be "very challenging."
"The teams are fully prepared -- they're ready to go do what they need to go do, and we look forward to the exciting activities as we install the Exposed Facility out on the Kibo module," added Gerstenmaier.
Endeavour's 16 day mission is expected feature five spacewalks to complete construction of Japan's Kibo laboratory. The new component will allow International Space Station (ISS) experiments to be exposed to space.
The STS-127 crew comprises Commander Mark Polansky, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Dave Wolf, Christopher Cassidy, Tom Marshburn, Tim Kopra and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette.
Kopra will join the space station crew and replace Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is scheduled to return to Earth after completing a three-month stint on the ISS.