Shuttle Discovery Blasts Off Toward Space Station
The space shuttle Discovery soars into the night sky above the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 28, 2009 at 11:59 pm ET to begin a 13-day mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com.

This story was updated at 2:42 a.m. EDT.

The space shuttle Discovery turned night into day above Florida late Friday as it blazed into the midnight sky carrying seven astronauts bound for the International Space Station.

Discovery rocketed into the dark sky above NASA?s Kennedy Space Center at 11:59 p.m. EDT (0359 Aug. 29 GMT) to begin a 13-day space station resupply mission after two launch delays earlier this week.

?This time Mother Nature is cooperating so it looks like third time really is the charm,? NASA launch director Pete Nickolenko told Discovery?s crew just before liftoff.

?Thanks to everyone who helped prepare for this mission,? shuttle commander Rick Sturckow radioed back. ?Let?s go step up the science on the International Space Station.?

Stormy weather threatened to delay the flight during the countdown, with several lightning strikes within 5 miles (8 km) of the launch pad, but abated in time for the successful liftoff. Some minor bits of ice were spotted on Discovery?s fuel tank before launch, but were not a concern for launch, NASA officials said.

"You know, I'll take it," said Mike Moses, head of Discovery's mission management team, after launch. "It'll be an exciting and challenging mission and we look forward on getting to it."

Bad weather thwarted Discovery?s first launch attempt on Tuesday and was closely followed by a hydrogen fuel valve glitch that prevented a second try. The fill-and-drain valve is a critical component in Discovery?s main propulsion system. It worked flawlessly during the shuttle?s midnight launch Friday.

Colbert in space

Discovery is hauling nearly 8 tons of cargo to the International Space Station, including new science gear, crew supplies and a treadmill named after television comedian Stephen Colbert. NASA named the treadmill for Colbert after the ?Colbert Report? host?s fans won an online poll to name a new space station room.

Despite Colbert?s popularity, NASA named the station module Tranquility - after the Apollo 11 moon base - but renamed the treadmill the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (or COLBERT) as a consolation prize. NASA invited Colbert to watch his treadmill namesake launch into space, but the comedian was unable to attend. He did, however, record a video message for NASA.

?I couldn?t be prouder that my treadmill will soon be installed on the International Space Station to help finally slim all those chubby astronauts,? Colbert said in the televised message this week. ?You guys and gals are our ambassadors to the universe, don?t make us look bad. Put down the astronaut ice cream tubby!?

Launching to space with Sturckow on Discovery are shuttle pilot Kevin Ford and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Jose Hernandez, Danny Olivas, Nicole Stott and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, who represents the European Space Agency. The mission is only the second flight to boost the space station?s population to 13 people since the outpost?s permanent crew increased to six spaceflyers in late May.

Three spacewalks are planned for their STS-128 mission to upgrade the space station and replace a massive ammonia coolant tank that weighs as much as a small car.

Each of the astronauts flashed different hand signs to cameras, presumably messages to family and friends, before boarding Discovery. Hernandez, a former migrant farm worker turned astronaut, waved at a video camera, tapped his heart and said ?I love you all? before boarding Discovery. He and his wife have five children.

NASA lowered flags at the Kennedy Space Center to half-mast at the launch site in memory of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who died of brain cancer earlier this week.

More science for station

Discovery?s six-man, one-woman crew will deliver a mix of supplies and science gear to the space station, as well as a new crewmember, Nicole Stott, to join the outpost?s six-person Expedition 20 crew.

Stott will replace fellow NASA astronaut Tim Kopra aboard the station as a flight engineer. Kopra has lived aboard the station since mid-July and will return to Earth on Discovery. Stott, meanwhile, is beginning a three-month space mission - the first spaceflight of her career. She said she?s looking forward to settling into life in orbit.

?I?m looking forward to that point in time where I just one day think ?Wow, this doesn?t seem weird anymore. It seems normal not to have to walk anymore,?? she said in a recent briefing.

Packed in Discovery?s payload bay is a cargo pod crammed with about 15,200 pounds (6,894 kg) of equipment and supplies.

?Most of the things, I think, which we bring up is to kind of both keep the six crew alive there and also to make it a little more comfortable life for them,? Fuglesang said in a NASA interview. ?So we have a lot of food, for example. But we bring up several big facilities.?

Some of those new facilities include a new freezer for storing biological samples, two refrigerator-sized racks for materials science and fluid physics research, as well as a small drawer with six mice inside as part of a bone loss study. The mice will return to Earth during a November shuttle mission.

Overnight flight

The astronauts aboard Discovery are following an off-kilter overnight schedule that requires them to sleep in the morning and wake up for their next day?s work in the late afternoon. They will go to sleep Saturday at 6:29 a.m. EDT (1029 GMT) and are due to wake up in afternoon at about 2:29 p.m. EDT (1829 GMT) to begin their first full day in space, one aimed at inspecting their heat shield for damage.

Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of NASA's spaceflight operations, said an early review found that Discovery's external fuel tank did not shed excessive amounts of foam insulation like that seen during the shuttle Endeavour's launch last month. That preliminary look, he said, found little evidence of any foam loss at all, though more analysis will be performed as a standard check.

"The tank appeared to perform extremely well," Gerstenmaier said. "We didn't see anything like we saw on the last tank." NASA has kept a close eye on foam debris during launch since the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

Friday?s launch marked the 128th shuttle mission for NASA and the 30th fight to the International Space Station. It is Discovery?s 37th flight and NASA?s 33rd shuttle mission to launch at night. It came just two days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the shuttle?s first flight in 1984. The mission is also NASA?s 15th shuttle flight since the 2003 loss of shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew.

Discovery?s mission is NASA?s fourth of up to five shuttle missions planned for 2009. The agency plans to fly six more flights after this one to complete space station construction before retiring its three-orbiter fleet in 2010 or 2011. A White House panel is reviewing NASA's human spaceflight plans for President Barack Obama and is expected to file a report that includes several alternative options in upcoming weeks.

Discovery and its seven-astronaut crew are due to land Sept. 10.

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SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Discovery's STS-128 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.