CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven blasted into orbit yesterday, 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 at 5:02 p.m., right on time.
Its 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
- will be the biggest room by far at the station and bring the orbiting outpost to three-quarters of completion.
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 the space station partners "and really for all the people who hope to see the space station come to fruition and do what it was designed to do."
The Japanese lab, 37 feet long and more than 32,000 pounds, fills Discovery's entire payload bay. The lab's first part flew up in March; the third and final section will be launched next year.
A large political contingent was also on hand, led by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.), who is newly married to Mark E. 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.
"It was pretty exciting, pretty exciting," Giffords said of the launch. Although liftoff was smooth - 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 returned.
About five thin pieces of what appeared to be 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.
STS-124, the 123d shuttle flight
and the 26th to the International Space Station.
14 days; due to return Saturday, June 14
Discovery is carrying the largest payload so far to the station, and the mission is to include three space walks. It is the second of three missions to launch components to complete Japan's Kibo lab.
Mark E. Kelly, 44, of West Orange, N.J.; pilot Kenneth T. Ham, 43, a native of Plainfield, N.J.; and mission specialists Karen L. Nyberg, 38; Ronald J. Garan Jr., 46; Michael E. Fossum, 50; Gregory E. Chamitoff, 45, and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide, 39.
Chamitoff will remain aboard the space station as a flight engineer, replacing Garrett E. Reisman. Reisman, 40, of Parsippany, N.J., a 1991 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, will return to Earth aboard Discovery.
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