CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. ? After months of delay, NASA?s shuttle Atlantis blasted offfrom the agency?s Florida spaceport Friday in a flawless liftoff, kicking offan 11-day construction flight for seven astronauts bound for the InternationalSpace Station (ISS).
Launchoccurred on time at 7:38:04 p.m. EDT (2338:04 GMT), as daylight waned here atNASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Storm clouds hovering around the launchfacility in the days leading up to launch were hustled inland by sea winds intime for liftoff, just as forecasters predicted.
"Ok,CJ it took us awhile to get to this point, but the ship's in great shape, we'vegot a beautiful weather day for you," NASA launch director Mike Leinbach toldAtlantis commander Rick "CJ" Sturckow. "Good luck and Godspeed."
"Seeyou in a couple of weeks," Sturckow said as he thanked the entire NASAteam for readying Atlantis for launch.
Ridingspaceward aboard Atlantis were the seven astronauts of NASA'sSTS-117 crew ,who have weathered three months of delays to launch their ISS constructionmission. The crewis tasked with delivering and installing twomassive truss segments and a pair of power-generating solar arrays to thespace station's starboard side.
"Thesolar arrays are tremendously important to us," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA'sassociate administrator of space operations, adding that they will prime theISS to support the newHarmony connecting node, the European-built Columbus laboratory and theJapanese Experiment Module (JEM) due to launch later this year and in early2008. "That power is necessary to support that node module, which thenprovides power to Columbus and the JEM module."
The launchof Atlantis' STS-117 mission marks a late start for NASA?s first shuttlemission of 2007, the first of up to four planned for this year.
In lateFebruary, a freak hailstorm left thousands defects in the foam insulation ofthe shuttle?s external fuel tank, forcing the agency to delay the planned March15 launch for repairs and to decrease the number of planned launches this yearfrom five to four. But the weather seemed to clear Friday, with even late-breakingfog and rain showers at a pair of emergency shuttle landing sites overseas alsoeasing in time for the space shot.
Friday?ssuccessful launch is also a morale boost for an agency that has been mired incontroversy in recent months, NASA administrator Michael Griffin told the AssociatedPress.
The agencyrecently firedastronaut Lisa Nowak after her arrest for allegedly plotting to kidnap a romanticrival for the affections of another astronaut, William Oefelein, whom NASA has also dismissed.Nowak was supposed to serve as lead spacecraft communicatory, known as CAPCOM,for STS-117.
NASA hasalso weathered the unprecedented hail damage to Atlantis' fuel tank; amurder-suicide at its Johnson Space Center; and just last week, Griffin himselfcame under fire for publiclydoubting whether global warming was a problem humanity could or should dealwith.
Atlantis isscheduled to dock with the space station at 3:36 pm EDT (1936 GMT) on Sunday,June 10.
Once there,the shuttle astronauts plan to perform at least three spacewalks to install the17.5-ton Starboard 3/Starboard 4 truss segments and their two solar wings.
Thenew equipment represents the heaviest payload ever launched to the spacestation, NASA officials have said. At 35,678 pounds (16,183 kilograms), the new trusses andsolar arrays are about 701 pounds (317 kilograms) heavier than their portsidecounterparts already aboard the ISS.
The STS-117astronauts will also fold away an older solar wing into its storage boxes soits central truss segment can be moved during a future spaceflight.
SpacewalkersRobert Curbeamand Christer Fuglesang from lastDecember?s STS-116 mission ran into unexpecteddifficulties while performing a similar retraction maneuver on another pairof solar arrays. The wings got stuck during mid-furl and guide wires had to becoaxed free with tape-covered pliers and other tools before folding awaycompletely.
The STS-117astronauts said they have taken the lessons learned during that excursion toheart.
?What tookthem an entire EVA we?re hoping to get done in significantly less time,? saidmission specialist James Reilly II.
STS-117mission specialist Clayton Anderson will relieve Expedition15 flight engineer SunitaWilliams, who has been aboard the ISS since last December. Williams isscheduled to return to Earth with the STS-117 crew on June 19.
Friday'ssuccessful space shot marked the 118th launch of aNASA space shuttle and the 28th liftoff of the Atlantis orbiter. It is NASA's21st shuttle flight to the ISS.
- SPACE.com Video Interplayer: Space Station Power Up with STS-117
- STS-117 Power Play: Atlantis Shuttle Crew to Deliver ISS Solar Wings
- The Great Space Quiz: Space Shuttle Countdown
- Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage
The Associated Press contributed tothis report.