This story was updated at 9:19 p.m. EST.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - For a few brief moments, night turned to day at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as the shuttle Discovery climbed into space atop twin columns of fire and smoke in the agency's first evening launch in four years.
Discovery lifted off at 8:47:35 p.m. EST (0147:35 Dec. 10 GMT) from Pad 39B here, arcing skyward like a brilliant flare. The white, pulsating glow of the shuttle's boosters was expected to be visible along the entire Eastern Seaboard as the craft made its way towards the International Space Station (ISS).
"We look forward to lighting up the night sky and rewiring the ISS," Discovery's STS-116 commander Mark Polansky told launch controllers. "You're all going to be with us going into orbit."
Discovery's flight comes two days after low clouds forced NASA launch controllers to scrub a planned Thursday liftoff just minutes before launch. Saturday's forecast was initially gloomy as well, at only 30 percent for Go, but the outlook reversed dramatically late in the day to 70 percent. Shuttle engineers and pad workers were also able to get launch preparations back on track after a series of delays.
Flying onboard Discovery with Polansky were shuttle pilot William Oefelein and mission specialists Robert Curbeam, Nicholas Patrick, Joan Higginbotham, Sunita Williams and Christer Fuglesang, a representative of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Sweden's first astronaut. All of the astronauts, with the exception of Polansky and Curbeam, are flying in space for the first time.
"I think we have five people just haven't stopped smiling yet," Polansky after Discovery reached orbit.
The successful launch of Discovery marked the beginning of the U.S. space plane's 33rd flight--more than any other orbiter in NASA's fleet. The mission is NASA's 117th shuttle flight and the 20th bound for the ISS. It is also NASA's third shuttle flight this year and the agency's first liftoff in darkness since 2002.
"I've always told people, 'If you see a day launch, you gotta come back and see a night launch,'" Stephanie Stilson, Discovery's vehicle flow manager, told SPACE.com. "It's a completely different perspective. One minute it's pitch dark, next minute you can turn around and see the people in the crowd that you couldn't see before when you're standing outside watching it."
A welcome return to night launches
Discovery's STS-116 launch is NASA's fourth space shuttle mission to fly after the 2003 Columbia tragedy that claimed the lives of seven astronauts.
Following that disaster, daylight restrictions were placed on shuttle launches so cameras could track any potentially harmful debris shed during liftoff. But emboldened by two successful test flights that evaluated post-Columbia safety modifications and the addition of now standard in-orbit inspection techniques to scan for heat shield damage, NASA officials decided it was time to reinstate night launches.
The move is a welcome one, and necessary if the agency is to fulfill international obligations to help complete ISS construction by September 2010, after which NASA's three-orbiter shuttle fleet will be retired.
"At this point we are as confident as we are likely to get that it's safe to return to the kind of operations that we simply must adapt if we are to complete the ISS by 2010," said NASA shuttle chief Wayne Hale.
Three radar systems and more than 100 cameras were trained on Discovery during its ascent to detect and track debris falling from its external tank.
Challenging space station construction
During their 12-day mission, the STS-116 crew will participate in three spacewalks to install a new $11 million Port 5 (P5) spacer segment to the ISS, switch on a thermal cooling system and rewire the orbital laboratory's electrical grid so it can draw power from a new set of solar panels arrays installed last month.
"I think we're just going to see the station moving more and more towards completion," Polansky told reporters in prelaunch interview, adding that each ISS construction mission relies on the success of the previous one. "We just hope that we're going to be just one of many that are going to be doing similar things."
The challenging rewiring tasks will involve heavily choreographed power-downs of different sections of the ISS at a time to allow spacewalkers to unplug and then replug power cables on the station.
"Many of us consider this the most challenging flight that the International Space Station program will have done since we began the effort of assembling the ISS," said NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini.
"When you look at the space station when the shuttle leaves, it's not going to look hardly any different than when they got there. But it will be a dramatically different vehicle inside when we finish all the reconfigurations," he added. "So this is a big flight for us and we're looking forward to it."
The STS-116 mission also involves a crew swap between Williams and German ESA astronaut, Thomas Reiter, who has been aboard the station since July. Williams will take Reiter's place as Expedition 14 flight engineer and Reiter is expected to return to Earth with Discovery's crew on Dec. 21.
Space station flight controllers told Reiter and his ISS crewmates of Discovery's successful launch shortly after liftoff, prompting a heartfelt congratulation from Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria.
"It's a wonderful achievement," Lopez-Alegria said as the ISS orbited 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Earth. "We're going to go head out and turn the porch light on so they can find us."
Discovery is scheduled to dock with the ISS at 5:08 p.m. EST (2208 GMT) on Monday, Dec. 11.
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