Discovery Shuttle's Night Launch 'Outstanding,' NASA Says

Night Lights: Shuttle Discovery Rockets Toward Space Station
NASA's space shuttle Discovery blasts off from Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 9, 2006. (Image credit:

This story was updated at 12:22 a.m. EST.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The launch of NASA's shuttle Discovery late Saturday appeared to be an exceptionally clean space shot, NASA mission managers said today.

"It all just came together perfectly," NASA launch director Mike Leinbach said in a post-launch briefing. "Once we got into the final count, we just executed. It was like a sim-run with no problems. It was outstanding."

Discovery lifted off at 8:47:35 p.m. EST (0147:35 Dec. 10 GMT) from Pad 39B here at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on a 12-day construction mission [image].

The successful space shot marked the third shuttle launch of this year and the first to take off in darkness since 2002. Of NASA's 117 shuttle flights to date, only 29 have taken off at night [image].

"What you've seen today is the successful accomplishment of the most challenging, demanding, technically state of the art difficult thing that this nation or any nation can do," NASA chief Michael Griffin said.

Initial weather forecasts for Saturday's night launch were bleak, with high crosswinds and low clouds giving only a 30 percent chance of favorable launch conditions. But weather conditions improved dramatically as the day wore on and the forecast improved to 70 percent 'Go' in the hours leading up to launch.

"Weather is very difficult to predict, and you hate to give up any chance of a good day," Griffin said. "Weather started getting better instead of worse and so it made our bet pay off and you saw that tonight."

NASA also had to race to get launch preparations back on track after a challenging 48-hour shuttle turnaround following Thursday evening's launch scrub caused a two-hour delay in external tank refueling. However, shuttle engineers and pad workers were able to make up for the lost time during final inspections of Discovery and the launch pad.

"The best we'd ever done before was an hour and 45 minutes late...all records are made to be broken, and we broke one today by tanking the latest ever in the program," Leinbach said. "From the astronaut's perspective, we didn't have any problem at all. They were ready to go, and once they got on the pad, it just clicked. Everything was just clicking today."

The orbiter's on-board cameras, designed to spot debris shed from the shuttle's external tank during ascent, performed as expected, but it is still too early to determine if any problems were detected. Monitoring fuel tank debris has been a prime concern for NASA since it led to the 2003 Columbia accident.

"When the orbiter separates and the thrusters fire, it illuminated the bottom of the orbiter very well," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

"The lighting was probably better in that region from what we thought or would've guessed from the preflight stuff," he added. "Again, no results in terms of anything we saw from a damage standpoint, but just from a quality of the video, there will be some good video available around the external tank separation."

Led by commander Mark Polansky, the seven-astronaut STS-116 crew is tasked with delivering a new $11 million Port 5 (P5) spacer segment to the ISS and the rewiring of the orbital laboratory's electrical grid so it can draw power from a new set of solar panels arrays installed last month.

"We're off to a great start," Gerstenmaier said, adding that the real challenges still lie ahead. "It won't be easy. It'll be a lot of fun for the next 12 days. The teams are ready, and we'll do as good on those other days as we did today."

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Staff Writer

Ker Than is a science writer and children's book author who joined as a Staff Writer from 2005 to 2007. Ker covered astronomy and human spaceflight while at, including space shuttle launches, and has authored three science books for kids about earthquakes, stars and black holes. Ker's work has also appeared in National Geographic, Nature News, New Scientist and Sky & Telescope, among others. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UC Irvine and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University. Ker is currently the Director of Science Communications at Stanford University.