Grounded for fleet-wide repairs to fuel liners, then delayed by a threatening hurricane, Atlantis finally blasted on-time at 3:45 p.m. from the Kennedy Space Center.
"You've been in Florida far too long," launch director Mike Leinbach radioed to the Atlantis crew shortly before liftoff. "Good luck."
Armchair astronauts watching the launch on television enjoyed a dizzying perspective of the blastoff with a new video camera mounted to the shuttle's external fuel tank relaying live views. The picture did not last long, however. The camera lens was smudged by smoke when the shuttle's booster rockets were jettisoned two-and-a-half minutes after launch and NASA cut off transmission.
Aboard the shuttle, three veteran astronauts joined three rookie fliers for NASA's 111th mission and the fourth of five flights planned for this year.
Commander Jeffrey Ashby, a 48-year-old U.S. Naval captain making his third shuttle flight, is scheduled to berth the spaceship at a docking port on the space station about 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday. He will be assisted by pilot Pamela Melroy, 41, an Air Force colonel flying for the second time and rookie astronaut Sandra Magnus, 37, the flight engineer.
On Thursday the crew will begin the first of three spacewalks to connect the 45-foot long, 14-ton exterior truss assembly to the backbone of the station, which was installed earlier this year.
The truss, which was built by Boeing and cost about $390 million, is called the S1 because it is the first outer segment on the station's starboard, or right-hand, side. A shuttle crew in November is scheduled to install a matching P1, for port-side or left, truss.
Upon completion, now slated for 2004, the space station will have nine truss segments to serve as masts for huge solar array panels needed to provide power to the outpost for experiments, spacecraft maintenance and life support equipment. Radiators to dissipate heat from electronics, plumbing for coolants and cables for communications and power relay also are part of the exterior truss assembly.
As soon as the shuttle and station crew use their ships' robotic cranes to position the S1 into place, spacewalkers David Wolf and Piers Sellers will leave the station's airlock to connect electrical cables, ammonia coolant lines and data links. Wolf, 46, has made three previous shuttle flights and served aboard the Russian Mir space station. Sellers, 42, is making his first flight. Rounding out the crew is rookie cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, 43.
NASA originally had planned to launch Atlantis more than a month ago, but delayed the mission when engineers determined all the space shuttles had problems with metal liners in their hydrogen fuel lines. A research mission aboard Columbia was bumped from July to January to keep the station assembly missions closer to schedule.
Atlantis is expected to spend a week at the space station and return back to the Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 18. Shuttle Endeavour is being prepared to continue work on the outpost with a launch slated for Nov. 10.