Space shuttle Discovery, seven astronauts blast off

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Discovery and seven astronauts
rocketed into orbit Monday on one of NASA's final stockpiling
missions to the International Space Station, its takeoff flames
bringing an early dawn to the coast with this last scheduled
shuttle launch in darkness.

The liftoff, less than an hour before sunrise, helped clinch a
record for the most women in space at the same time.

Three women are aboard Discovery, and another already is at the
space station, making for an unprecedented foursome. The shuttle
should arrive at the orbiting outpost Wednesday.

In a rare treat, the space station passed over the launch site
15 minutes before Discovery blasted off and was easily visible,
resembling a big, brilliant star in the clear morning sky with the
moon as a dramatic backdrop. Spectators were mightily impressed,
and there was a chorus of "Oooooh." By launch time, the outpost
had traveled almost all the way across the Atlantic.

"It's time for you to rise to orbit. Good luck and Godspeed,"
launch director Pete Nickolenko told the astronauts right before
liftoff.

"Let's do it!" replied commander Alan Poindexter.

Discovery could be seen with the naked eye for seven minutes as
it shot upward, adding to the show. And almost as an encore, the
exhaust plumes fanned out in spirals across the sky, turning pale
shades of rose, peach and gold in the glinting sunlight.

The six space station residents gathered around the dinner table
to watch the launch on a laptop computer. "We are absolutely
delighted to have our friendly comrades joining us here in a couple
of days," said spaceman Timothy Creamer.

"Stand by for a knock on the door," Mission Control radioed.

Japan celebrated its own space feat with Discovery's liftoff.
Two of its astronauts were circling Earth at the same time, one on
the shuttle and the other on the station. More than 300 Japanese
journalists and space program officials crowded the launch site;
the roads leading to the Kennedy Space Center also were jammed with
Easter vacationers and spring breakers eager to see one of the few
remaining shuttle flights.

Only three shuttle missions remain after this one. NASA intends
to retire its fleet by the end of September, but is unsure what
will follow for human spaceflight. President Barack Obama will
visit the area April 15, while Discovery is still in orbit, to fill
in some of the blanks.

NASA's moon exploration program, Constellation, already has been
canceled by Obama.

Poindexter and his crew will spend nine days at the space
station, replenishing supplies. The astronauts will install a fresh
ammonia tank for the cooling system - a cumbersome job requiring
three spacewalks. They also will drop off science experiments as
well as an extra sleeping compartment, a darkroom to improve
picture-taking from the lab's high-quality window, and other
equipment totaling thousands of pounds.

All these supplies are needed to keep the space station running
long after NASA's three remaining shuttles stop flying. NASA will
rely on other countries' vessels to deliver crews and supplies, but
none are as big and roomy as the shuttle.

The space station will continue operating until 2020 under the
Obama plan. The idea is for commercial rocket companies to
eventually provide ferry service for astronauts. Right now, NASA is
paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. That's how U.S.
astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson got to the space station Sunday, two
days after being launched from Kazakhstan.

Discovery's flight was the 35th in the shuttle program to begin
in darkness and, barring unforeseen problems, the last. The mission
was delayed more than two weeks because of this winter's unusually
cold weather. So instead of an afternoon launch, the shuttle took
off before sunrise, pushing all the action into the graveyard
shift.

The mission will last nearly two weeks and coincide with the
29th anniversary of the first shuttle flight on April 12.

Once combined, the shuttle and station crews will number 13:
eight Americans, three Russians and two Japanese.

Most everything went smoothly in Monday morning's countdown. A
half-hour before liftoff, a failure was noted in the Air Force
system for sending self-destruct signals to the shuttle in case it
strays off course. A backup line was working fine, though, and the
launch occurred at 6:21 a.m., right on time.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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