Giffords arrived in Florida on Wednesday to observe the launch, her first trip away from the Houston rehabilitation hospital where she is being treated for injuries suffered in a shooting at a public event in Tucson in January.
President Obama also plans to watch the launch with his family after touring the storm-stricken South.
But to scientists, the real star is tucked away in Endeavour’s cargo bay: A $2 billion, seven-ton cosmic experiment about 17 years in the making.
The brainchild of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Samuel C.C. Ting, the experiment will sniff space for cosmic rays, antimatter, dark matter and other exotic and poorly understood phenomena.
If the mission goes as planned, the device will deliver marquee science to the space station, which has had its science mission repeatedly trimmed since the $100 billion orbiting outpost was proposed in the 1980s. Although the station boasts three laboratory modules, maintenance duties preclude each of the station’s six astronauts from spending more than an hour a day on science experiments, according to a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office.
“I think the AMS will be a great uplift for American particle physics,” said Ulrich Becker, Ting’s colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Becker is one of 600 physicists involved in the experiment, called the alpha magnetic spectrometer, or AMS.
But not every physicist is happy about the AMS. A vocal contingent complains that Ting circumvented the usual scientific review processes at NASA and the Department of Energy. They also say the expensive experiment will offer limited information.
“This kind of science is not worth billions of dollars,” said Gregory Tarle, an experimental physicist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In some physicist circles, Tarle said, “people are shaking their heads that Sam could do this. He did it by bullying his way through.”
Ting, in a phone interview, steered clear of the controversy, saying that it is “very hard to predict” what exotic phenomena the device might find.
The Energy Department says it contributed $50 million to the experiment, and NASA will spend an additional $104 million through 2020, not including the expense of the shuttle flight. Fifteen other countries picked up the rest of the tab.
The 2003 destruction of the shuttle Columbia pushed NASA to cancel the experiment’s launch. Only a prolonged lobbying campaign by the famously strong-willed Ting returned the device to NASA’s launch manifest. In 2008, Congress passed a law forcing NASA to extend the shuttle program and fly the experiment.
Then, last year, Ting ordered a redesign of the AMS, delaying its scheduled November launch. Concerned that liquid helium needed to supercool the device’s central magnet would boil off into space, Ting swapped in an older, weaker magnet that needs no such cooling. The experiment is now rated to function until at least 2020, the space station’s scheduled destruction date. But the weaker magnet made the experiment less sensitive, and so Ting led other major modifications to the device’s sensitive particle detectors.