Japan's 'Hope' Rides Toward Space Station
NASA's space shuttle Discovery launches into space carrying Japan's massive Kibo lab module for the International Space Station on May 31, 2008 at 5:02:12 p.m. EDT (2102:12 GMT).
Credit: SPACE.com/Roger Guillemette.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The space shuttle Discovery?s successful Saturday launch marked a milestone for Japan, whose largest contribution to the International Space Station (ISS) has finally reached space.

The Japanese people are now eagerly awaiting the installation of their massive Kibo laboratory (whose name means ?Hope" in Japanese), which was more than 20 years in the making, at the space station next week.

?This is very significant for Japan because ? now we have our experiment module up at the station,? said Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) after the successful launch. ?That means it is the first time for Japan to have [a] manned facility in space.?

The space shuttle lifted off at 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT) today from a seaside launch pad here, beginning a planned 14-day mission to the space station to deliver Kibo module along with an eagerly-awaited replacement pump for the orbiting lab?s broken toilet.

The launch is significant not just for Japan, but for the international spaceflight community, NASA officials said.

?This was a huge day for the ISS partnership, for the Japanese Space Agency, for NASA, and really for all the people who hope to see the ISS come to fruition and do what it was designed to do,? said NASA chief Michael Griffin.

Discovery?s liftoff was also notably smooth, mission managers said.

?It was just a flawless countdown, and a flawless launch,? said LeRoy Cain, chair for Discovery?s STS-124 mission management team.

About five pieces of foam debris were spotted falling from the shuttle?s external tank, but NASA officials were confident they would not pose a risk to the orbiter?s heat shield.

?They were late in the ascent, so they can?t build up enough velocity to impact the orbiter,? said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA?s space operations chief. ?They appear to be lightweight based on what we?ve seen.?

Today?s flight was the first to use an external tank built from the ground up with all the redesigns planned after the 2003 Columbia tragedy, when that shuttle was destroyed because of damage to its heat shielding incurred from falling debris from its external tank.

Tomorrow, Discovery?s crew will make a preliminary inspection of their orbiter?s heat shield, though a full checkout will have to wait until the seventh day of their mission on June 6.

Because the tour bus-sized Kibo lab is so large, Discovery launched with its usual inspection boom for heat shield surveys. Spacewalking astronauts are slated to retrieve a spare inspection boom stored outside the space station for Discovery on Tuesday.

There also appeared to be a minor glitch with the backup electrical system for a swivel joint in one of Discovery?s two aft-mounted Orbital Maneuvering System engines during liftoff, but officials said it should not pose problem since the primary sytem is still working fine.

Watching the launch from KSC was a reunion of 16 of the surviving ?35 New Guys? (TFNG) - the first class of astronauts picked for the space shuttle program. This year marks the 30th anniversary of their appointment as astronauts in 1978, after the Apollo program ended. This group included the first female astronauts, and also the first black astronaut - Guion Bluford. Four of the TFNG perished in the Challenger disaster.

Also viewing the launch was five-time spaceflyer, U.S. astronaut Janice Voss.

?I?m extremely pleased that this crew is going to get their chance to experience the space environment,? Voss told SPACE.com today. ?I?m really excited about the Japanese pressurized module going up, and the full integration of our last major international partner who hasn?t previously been fully integrated. This will be a huge step up for them, which is nice to see.?

NASA is broadcasting Discovery's STS-124 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission updates and a live NASA TV feed.