Liftoff! Shuttle Atlantis Rockets Towards Space Station
The space shuttle Atlantis rockets skyward from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to kick off the STS-117 construction mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? After months of delay, NASA?s shuttle Atlantis blasted off from the agency?s Florida spaceport Friday in a flawless liftoff, kicking off an 11-day construction flight for seven astronauts bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Launch occurred on time at 7:38:04 p.m. EDT (2338:04 GMT), as daylight waned here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Storm clouds hovering around the launch facility in the days leading up to launch were hustled inland by sea winds in time for liftoff, just as forecasters predicted.

"Ok, CJ it took us awhile to get to this point, but the ship's in great shape, we've got a beautiful weather day for you," NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told Atlantis commander Rick "CJ" Sturckow. "Good luck and Godspeed."

"See you in a couple of weeks," Sturckow said as he thanked the entire NASA team for readying Atlantis for launch.

Riding spaceward aboard Atlantis were the seven astronauts of NASA's STS-117 crew , who have weathered three months of delays to launch their ISS construction mission. The crew is tasked with delivering and installing two massive truss segments and a pair of power-generating solar arrays to the space station's starboard side.

"The solar arrays are tremendously important to us," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator of space operations, adding that they will prime the ISS to support the new Harmony connecting node, the European-built Columbus laboratory and the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) due to launch later this year and in early 2008. "That power is necessary to support that node module, which then provides power to Columbus and the JEM module."

Back on track

The launch of Atlantis' STS-117 mission marks a late start for NASA?s first shuttle mission of 2007, the first of up to four planned for this year.

In late February, a freak hailstorm left thousands defects in the foam insulation of the shuttle?s external fuel tank, forcing the agency to delay the planned March 15 launch for repairs and to decrease the number of planned launches this year from five to four. But the weather seemed to clear Friday, with even late-breaking fog and rain showers at a pair of emergency shuttle landing sites overseas also easing in time for the space shot.

Friday?s successful launch is also a morale boost for an agency that has been mired in controversy in recent months, NASA administrator Michael Griffin told the Associated Press.

The agency recently fired astronaut Lisa Nowak after her arrest for allegedly plotting to kidnap a romantic rival for the affections of another astronaut, William Oefelein, whom NASA has also dismissed. Nowak was supposed to serve as lead spacecraft communicatory, known as CAPCOM, for STS-117.

NASA has also weathered the unprecedented hail damage to Atlantis' fuel tank; a murder-suicide at its Johnson Space Center; and just last week, Griffin himself came under fire for publicly doubting whether global warming was a problem humanity could or should deal with.

A busy mission

Atlantis is scheduled to dock with the space station at 3:36 pm EDT (1936 GMT) on Sunday, June 10.

Once there, the shuttle astronauts plan to perform at least three spacewalks to install the 17.5-ton Starboard 3/Starboard 4 truss segments and their two solar wings.

The new equipment represents the heaviest payload ever launched to the space station, NASA officials have said. At 35,678 pounds (16,183 kilograms), the new trusses and solar arrays are about 701 pounds (317 kilograms) heavier than their portside counterparts already aboard the ISS.

The STS-117 astronauts will also fold away an older solar wing into its storage boxes so its central truss segment can be moved during a future spaceflight.

Spacewalkers Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang from last December?s STS-116 mission ran into unexpected difficulties while performing a similar retraction maneuver on another pair of solar arrays. The wings got stuck during mid-furl and guide wires had to be coaxed free with tape-covered pliers and other tools before folding away completely.

The STS-117 astronauts said they have taken the lessons learned during that excursion to heart.

?What took them an entire EVA we?re hoping to get done in significantly less time,? said mission specialist James Reilly II.

STS-117 mission specialist Clayton Anderson will relieve Expedition 15 flight engineer Sunita Williams, who has been aboard the ISS since last December. Williams is scheduled to return to Earth with the STS-117 crew on June 19.

Friday's successful space shot marked the 118th launch of a NASA space shuttle and the 28th liftoff of the Atlantis orbiter. It is NASA's 21st shuttle flight to the ISS.

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: Space Station Power Up with STS-117
  • STS-117 Power Play: Atlantis Shuttle Crew to Deliver ISS Solar Wings
  • The Great Space Quiz: Space Shuttle Countdown
  • Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage

The Associated Press contributed to this report.