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Shuttle Discovery Lifts Off
Associated Press | December 10, 2006CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space-bound electricians lit up the skies on their way to make a cosmic nighttime house call. After a fiery ascent late Saturday that turned night into day, space shuttle Discovery and its crew headed to the international space station to rewire the orbital outpost. It was the first nighttime launch in four years.
Astronauts will spend Sunday in orbit inspecting the shuttle for potentially critical heat shield damage. Discovery will dock with the space station on Monday, and the intricate work will begin. Three complicated spacewalks are planned to rewire the space station from a temporary to a permanent power source.
NASA had to beat the odds to get off the launch pad Saturday. After only a 30 percent chance of good weather earlier in the day and a two-hour delay in fueling, Discovery streaked through a moonless sky at 8:47 p.m. EST.
"It just all came together perfectly," launch director Mike Leinbach said. "Everything was just clicking today. Some days you feel good and you know it's going to come together."
The mood was also upbeat aboard Discovery, where five of seven astronauts were rookies.
"I think we have five people who just haven't stopped smiling yet," commander Mark Polansky said after the shuttle reached space.
During its 12-day mission, Discovery's crew will also deliver an $11 million addition to the space lab and bring home one of the space station's three crew members, German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency. American astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams will replace him, staying for six months.
The two veterans aboard the shuttle are Polansky and Robert Curbeam, who will spacewalk three times. The others are pilot William Oefelein, and mission specialists Joan Higginbotham, Nicholas Patrick, Williams and the European Space Agency's Christer Fuglesang, who was the first Swede in space.
Fugelsang carried some unusual food into orbit: several cans of moose sausage and moose pate.
The mission is one leg of a three-year race to finish construction on the space station before shuttles are retired in 2010. After Discovery's mission, 13 more shuttle flights are needed to complete the lab.
The launch was the first at night since Endeavour's flight in November 2002 and only the 29th in darkness of NASA's 117 total shuttle launches.
"What you've seen tonight is the successful accomplishment of the most challenging, demanding, technically state-of-the-art, difficult thing that this nation or any nation can do," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.
Mission Control in Houston told Discovery's crew that there were no initial reports of any serious problems and that the shuttle was "in great shape."
"If this is any indication, it's a great start to a great mission," Polansky radioed back.
Engineers still need to review imagery and radar to look for damage to the shuttle from debris falling off the external tank during lift off, the problem that doomed Columbia.
NASA had required daylight launches for three flights after the Columbia accident in 2003 so that clear images could be taken of the external fuel tank. Foam broke off Columbia's tank at liftoff and struck the spacecraft's wing, leading to the disaster that killed seven astronauts.
Saturday's launch was only the fourth since the Columbia disaster in 2003 and the third of the year. It also was the last scheduled liftoff from pad 39B, which will be modified for new rockets that will take astronauts back to the moon in 2020.
"It's kind of the end of an era," Leinbach said.
Waiting at the space station for his visitors to arrive on Monday, U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria played celebratory music for Discovery, "Song 2" by Blur, highlighting the lyrics: "Woo hoo! Woo hoo! Woo hoo! Woo hoo!"
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