Shuttle Discovery heads to space station
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven blasted into orbit Saturday, carrying a giant Japanese lab addition to the international space station along with something more mundane — a toilet pump.
Discovery roared into a brilliant blue sky dotted with a few clouds at 5:02 p.m., right on time.
The shuttle's trip to the space station should take two days. Once there, Discovery's crew will unload and install the $1 billion lab and hand-deliver a specially made pump for the outpost's finicky toilet.
The school-bus-size lab, named Kibo, Japanese for hope, will be the biggest room by far at the space station and bring the orbiting outpost to three-quarters of completion.
"It's a gorgeous day to launch," NASA's launch director, Mike Leinbach, told the astronauts just before liftoff, wishing them good luck and Godspeed. Commander Mark Kelly noted that Kibo was the "hope for the space station," then radioed: "Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth!"
Nearly 400 Japanese journalists, space program officials and other guests jammed NASA's launch site, their excitement growing as the hours, then minutes counted down.
Their enthusiasm was catchy.
"This is a real milestone," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.
The Japanese lab is 37 feet long and more than 32,000 pounds, and fills Discovery's entire payload bay. The first part of the lab flew up in March, and the third and final section will be launched next year.
The entire lab, with all its pieces, cost more than $2 billion.
A large political contingent was also on hand led by Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who is newly married to Kelly, Discovery's commander. They invited numerous bigwigs from Arizona and Washington.
Giffords acknowledged being nervous, far more so than the day she was elected to Congress in 2006.
"It's a risky job. I'm pleased that the vehicle's in good shape, the weather is beautiful. They've had no problems," she told The Associated Press. "But you don't really relax" until the shuttle is back from its two-week mission.
Kelly's brother, Scott, didn't need an invitation to the launch — he's also a space shuttle commander. They're identical twins.
Scott Kelly said it was more nerve-racking to watch his brother launch than to be strapped in himself. Their parents and 91-year-old grandmother are always anxious on launch day, he said.
"I know my grandmother, she would rather I work at Wal-Mart," Scott Kelly said, chuckling, before liftoff.
Three spacewalks are planned during Discovery's 14-day flight, to install Kibo, replace an empty nitrogen-gas tank and try out various cleaning methods on a clogged solar-wing rotating joint. The shuttle crew is made up of six Americans and one Japanese.
The space station's two Russian residents, meanwhile, will put in the new toilet pump. For more than a week, the three occupants have had to manually flush the toilet with extra water several times a day, a time-consuming, water-wasting job.
NASA and Russian space officials are hoping that the pump — which was rushed to Kennedy Space Center from Moscow just this past week — gets the toilet back in normal working order.
One of Discovery's astronauts, Gregory Chamitoff, will move into the space station for a six-month stay. He'll replace Garrett Reisman, who will return to Earth aboard the shuttle.
Also hitching a ride to the space station is Buzz Lightyear. The 12-inch (30-centimeter) action figure — made famous in the 1995 Disney film "Toy Story" — is part of NASA's "toys in space" educational program for elementary students and their teachers.