Friday afternoon, Endeavour will lift off from Kennedy Space Center at 3:47 p.m eastern time, the penultimate launch for the 30-year-old shuttle program. That means it will be the second-to-last time thousands of onlookers will gather on beaches around Cape Canaveral, to crane their necks at the sky and marvel at the ear-popping, heart-stopping thrill of the launch.
These stunning photographs from our April issue were taken during the final launch of Discovery in February. No one is allowed within a three-mile radius of the launch site, but our contributing photographer Dan Winters set up seven cameras around the launchpad, three within five hundred feet of the orbiter, with hand-built triggers designed to fire at five frames per second in response to the ear-splitting roar of the rockets igniting. All of these photos were taken during a two-minute period from the time of ignition to just before the shuttle dropped its boosters. None of the cameras were incinerated in the process, though that has happened to other photographers.
Mark Kelly, the husband of wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is commanding this mission STS-134, and Giffords will be watching the launch from a secure location at the Kennedy Space Center, along with the Obamas. Endeavour's payload includes a $2 billion alpha magnetic spectrometer and, more curiously, thirteen Lego sets that will be built by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
After this 14-day mission, Endeavour will retire to its permanent home in Los Angeles at the California Science Center. (NASA dealt a devastating blow to Houston earlier this month when it did not give the Johnson Space Center a retired shuttle to display.) Atlantis is slated to take off in June, the 135th and final time a shuttle will enter near-earth orbit.