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Japanese Applaud Discovery's Launch

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Clad in a U.S. spacesuit, STS-114 mission specialist astronaut Soichi Noguchi - of JAXA - participates in a dry run "cure in place ablator applicator" test aboard NASA's KC-135 aircraft as part of return to flight readiness program. (Image credit: NASA/JSC.)

CHIGASAKI,Japan (AP) -- Drums pounded and hundreds of hometown well-wishers roared withjoy Tuesday as Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchiblasted off aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

About300 people braved a typhoon and crowded into a brightly decorated receptionroom at City Hall to watch ride into space with six other astronauts. Chigasaki, a coastal city just south of Tokyo, is Noguchi's hometown.

"It'smagnificent," said Takakazu Ishii, 26, afterwatching the liftoff. "It's amazing."

Whenthe launch was officially declared a success, the hall was filled with thepopping of firecrackers and cheers of ''Banzai!'' _ anexpression of congratulations that means "long life."

"Weare praying for you," said Mayor Nobuaki Hattori. "Mr. Noguchi, goodluck!"

Noguchi,40, is the sixth Japanese astronaut to go into space, five of them aboardAmerican spacecraft. A Japanese TV journalist was the first, having paid hisway onto a flight with the Russians.

Thelaunch was shown live on big screens across Japan,from a plaza in front of one of Tokyo's busiesttrain stations to a holding room at Japan's space agency headquarters.Millions more watched the broadcast live on NHK, Japan's public television network.

"Itappears to be going very smoothly," Mamoru Mori, Japan'sfirst astronaut, told NHK shortly after the launch.

Japan, long thepremier space power in Asia, has closely tied its program to the United States.Since 1992, it has relied exclusively on the United States for manned flights,and, like NASA, is also a major participant in the International Space Station.

ButChina has recently eclipsed Japan by sending its first astronauts intoorbit, a feat Japanhas yet to accomplish on its own.

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