Space Shuttle’s Midnight Launch Dazzles in Photos
Viewed from the Banana River Viewing Site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, space shuttle Discovery arcs through a cloud-brushed sky, lighted by the trail of fire after launch on the STS-128 mission. Liftoff from Launch Pad 39A was on time at 11:59 p.m. EDT on Aug. 28, 2009.
Credit: NASA/Ben Cooper

The brilliant midnight launch of NASA?s space shuttle Discovery late Friday brought a false dawn above Florida that was captured in spectacular images by photographers on Earth.

NASA photographer Jim Grossman caught a snapshot of Discovery rising like a small star over its Kennedy Space Center launch site, while another - photographer Ben Cooper - took a stunning time-lapse photo of the liftoff as it painted a blazing arc across the night sky.

Discovery soared into space under a black sky at 11:59 p.m. EDT (0359 Aug. 29 GMT) as one of only seven shuttle flights currently remaining before NASA retires its orbiter fleet in 2010 or 2011. As of now, it is also NASA?s last scheduled mission to lift off in total darkness, though that could change as the launch manifest is finalized, shuttle officials have said.

But regardless of how many are left, Discovery?s launch was definitely one to remember, mission managers said.

?[It was] a really clean launch countdown, a beautiful and spectacular launch,? said Pete Nickolenko, NASA?s launch director, after liftoff.

At times, it looked like Discovery and its seven-astronaut crew would succumb to Mother Nature, which had already prevented the launch once with thunderstorms and lightning on Tuesday. A fuel valve glitch thwarted a second launch try.

Mike Moses, head of Discovery?s mission management team, said the outlook seemed bleak earlier Friday as he drove to the NASA spaceport under rainy skies thick with clouds before launch. Shuttle managers frequently checked in with NASA?s launch weather officer Kathy Winters every 15 minutes to see how things went, he said.

?I think all the hot air from all the talking we did blew all the thick clouds away,? Moses joked after liftoff.

Commanded by veteran spaceflyer Rick Sturckow, Discovery?s astronaut crew plans to fly a 13-day resupply flight to the International Space Station. The shuttle is carrying a new member of the station?s crew, as well as a cargo pod packed with science gear and a space treadmill named after television comedian Stephen Colbert.

Discovery is due to arrive at the space station late Sunday on the 25th anniversary of its debut flight in 1984. The shuttle astronauts will join the outpost?s six-person crew and temporarily boost its population to 13 - the historical maximum number of people in space. It will be the second time in as many months that the space station more than doubles its crew size with visiting shuttle astronauts.

Three spacewalks are planned for Discovery?s mission, which is NASA?s fourth of up to five missions this year.

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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.