This story was updated at 5:30 a.m. ET.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The cloudy predawn sky above Florida ignited into a spectacular blaze Tuesday as NASA's shuttleEndeavour roared into a high-speed pursuit of the International Space Station(ISS).
Endeavour and its seven-astronautcrew successfully left Earth at 2:28 a.m. EDT (0628 GMT), riding a towering column of whitesmoke in a rare night liftoff from Launch Pad 39A here at Kennedy Space Center. Led by commanderDominic Gorie, the STS-123mission crew is now poised to catch up to the space station Wednesday night.
"God'struly blessed us with a beautiful night here," Gorie said minutes beforeEndeavour rumbled spaceward. "Let's light 'em up and give them a show."
During their planned16-day mission — the longest station-bound flight yet — the crew willperform no less than five spacewalks to install a giant Canadian robot, deliverthe first piece of Japan's school bus-sized Kibo laboratory and conduct aseries of on-orbit science experiments.
Riding aboard the orbiterwith Gorie are pilot Gregory H. Johnson, mission specialists Robert Behnken,Mike Foreman, Rick Linnehan, Garrett Reisman and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The launch marks the first spaceflight Johnson, Behnken, Foreman and Reisman.
Reisman will stay aboard the ISS as a member of the Expedition 16 and 17 spacestation crews. He will relieve European Space Agency (ESA) astronautLeopold Eyharts, who will return home on board Endeavour.
"He is our mostprecious payload," Johnson said of Reisman prior to launch. "We'retaking him to the space station and we're going to leave him there."
WhenEndeavour docks at the space station late Wednesday, the crew will quickly get towork by retrieving pieces of a massiverobot named Dextre with the shuttle's robotic arm.
Astronauts areslated to spend two spacewalking days assembling the 1.72-ton robot, which willuse two 11-foot (3.4-meter) arms, gripper-like "hands" and a toolbelt to gently replace failed components outside the space station. The Canadian Space Agency built the new robot to help relieve station astronauts of the more routine maintenance work outside the ISS.
"Dextreis 'Gigantor the Space Age Robot,' is what I think," said Linnehan, who willpartake in the device's assembly. "He's massive and crawls around thestation. He's got two big arms and he's got all these appendages and tools toplug in. It's pretty wild."
Before Dextre is put together outside of the ISS, however, astronauts willinstall the Japanese Logistics Pressurized (JLP) module — that nation'sfirst room in space, and the first of three Kibo laboratory components.
"Forthe first time we'll have representatives from four nations; from Russia, from the U.S., from Europe and from Japan," Doi said of the JLP's installation, callinghis own participation a dream come true. "Some people have been working onthis program more than 25 years, it's just unbelievable."
The STS-123crew will also spend two other days outside the airlock to test heat-resistant tilerepair methods and replace bearings in a damaged solar array joint.
Beacon in the night
Today's successful liftoff isthe second of six flights NASA planned for an ambitious 2008 launch schedule,and marks the 122nd space shuttle mission, the 25th flight to the space stationand Endeavour's 21st launch.
The predawn launch is onlythe second after-dark flight in five years — the latest was shuttle Discovery'slaunch in late 2006. NASA temporarily halted night launches because it'sdifficult to spot errant chunks of ice or insulation that can shed from the external fuel tank.
Such debris can damage theheat-resistant underbelly of a space shuttle, but Endeavour is using a newcamera flash system for the first time that will help technicians betterexamine the shuttle's disposable 15-story tank after launch.
"We're somewhathampered because of the night launch," LeRoy Cain, chair of NASA's missionmanagement team Sunday, but noted that the flash unit should be a boon topost-launch inspections. "I think it should be pretty spectacular."
Perhaps more importantly, however,astronauts will scope for thermal shield damage with the space shuttle'ssensor-tipped inspection boom.
"That's where wereally verify that the orbiter is safe to come home," Cain said.
STS-123 astronauts willunberth the 50-foot (15-meter) boom Tuesday evening and begin an eight-hourinspection of the shuttle's wing leading edges and nose cap, which absorb most ofthe heat of atmospheric reentry. Space station crew will also photograph theorbiter's underside shortly before the spacecraft docks at the orbital outpost.
Endeavour is slated to arrive at the space station late Wednesday at 11:27 p.m. EDT (0327 GMT March13) and return to Earth the evening of March 26.
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