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Archive for Sunday, June 1, 2008

Shuttle Discovery blasts off for space station

The space shuttle Discovery thunders off the launch pad during lift off Saturday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The space shuttle Discovery thunders off the launch pad during lift off Saturday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

June 1, 2008

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— Space shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven blasted into orbit Saturday, carrying a giant Japanese lab addition to the international space station along with something more mundane - a toilet pump.

Discovery roared into a brilliantly blue sky dotted with a few clouds at 5:02 p.m., right on time.

The shuttle's trip to the space station should take two days. Once there, Discovery's crew will unload and install the $1 billion lab and hand-deliver a specially made pump for the outpost's finicky toilet.

The school-bus-size lab, named Kibo, Japanese for hope, will be the biggest room by far at the space station and bring the orbiting outpost to three-quarters of completion.

"It's a gorgeous day to launch," NASA's launch director, Mike Leinbach, told the astronauts just before liftoff, wishing them good luck and Godspeed. Commander Mark Kelly noted that Kibo was the "hope for the space station," then radioed: "Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth!"

Nearly 400 Japanese journalists, space program officials and other guests jammed NASA's launch site, their excitement growing as the hours, then minutes counted down.

Their enthusiasm was catching. NASA officials hailed the mission as a milestone.

"Obviously a huge day," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said, for all of the space station partners "and really for all the people who hope to see space station come to fruition and do what it was designed to do."

The Japanese lab is 37 feet long and more than 32,000 pounds, and fills Discovery's entire payload bay. The first part of the lab flew up in March, and the third and final section will be launched next year.

The entire lab, with all its pieces, cost more than $2 billion.

A large political contingent was also on hand led by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who's newly married to Kelly, Discovery's commander. They invited numerous bigwigs from Arizona and Washington.

Giffords acknowledged being nervous, far more so than the day she was elected to Congress in 2006. She gripped her mother-in-law with her right arm and held her own mother's hand in her left as she watched Discovery soar.

"It was pretty exciting, pretty exciting," Giffords told The Associated Press. Although it was a smooth launch - the only problem was the apparent failure of a backup set of electronics for swiveling engines - she said she wouldn't relax until the shuttle is back from its two-week mission.

About five pieces of debris - what appeared to be thin pieces of insulating foam - broke off the fuel tank during liftoff, but the losses did not occur during the crucial first two minutes and should be of no concern, said NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier. This was the first tank to have all safety changes prompted by the 2003 Columbia disaster built in from the start.

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