CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A Japanese astronaut is ushering his country into the realm of endurance spaceflight as Japan?s first long-term resident on the International Space Station after rocketing into space aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery late Sunday.
Koichi Wakata, a veteran spaceflyer with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is riding toward his new orbital home for the next three months, where he will serve as an Expedition 18 flight engineer.
"This mission is a giant leap for the Japanese manned space activity program," JAXA vice president Yukihide Hayashi said through a translator at briefing here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center after launch. "It will accumulate valuable knowledge and experience for the future Japanese space and aviation program."
Wakata was one of seven astronauts, led by commander Lee Archambault, to launch aboard Discovery's STS-119 mission tonight. The spacecraft lifted off in a purple twilight sky at 7:43 p.m. EDT (2343 GMT) from the seaside pad here.
"I've seen a lot of launches?this was the most visually beautiful launch I have ever seen," said NASA shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach. "It was just spectacular. When the orbiter and the tank and boosters got up into the sunlight, that had just set about 10 minutes prior, it was just gorgeous."
The shuttle lifted off to "perfect" weather conditions, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Barrett of the 45th Weather Squadron said. About two hours before Discovery's liftoff, shuttle weather officers upgraded the forecast from an 80 percent to 100 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch.
The launch went smoothly, in contrast to a series of glitches that have kept Discovery grounded for more than a month past its original launch date.
"I think when we work a little extra hard to get to the launch I think it's even a little sweeter when the launch actually occurs," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA?s associate administrator for space operations. "I think this just worked out really wonderful."
A small fruit bat that fell asleep on the side of the shuttle's external tank this morning apparently held on throughout Discovery's liftoff.
"We had a bat that was on the side of the external tank," Leinbach said. "We characterize him as unexpected debris, and he's probably still unexpected debris somewhere."
Discovery is carrying a huge girder to complete the space station's backbone truss, and the final set of solar arrays to power the orbital outpost. After dropping off Wakata at the station, Discovery will ferry his predecessor, NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, home.
The nation of Japan will be following this mission closely, eager for their countryman to live onboard the space station and use its largest laboratory, the Japanese-built Kibo module, which was installed last May.
"So many Japanese people are very, very happy and watching Mr. Wakata's successful flight," Hayashi said. "The meaning of this mission for the Japanese people is that this marks the very first long-stay mission by the Japanese astronauts. It is very, very meaningful for the Japanese manned space program."
SPACE.com is providing continuous coverage of STS-119 with reporter Clara Moskowitz in Cape Canaveral and senior editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's live NASA TV video feed.
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