Florida's often-fickle weather was pristine as the NASA launch team crisply ran through checklists to prepare for the 113th shuttle mission. Columbia's flight is a holdover from last year, delayed initially by shuttle fuel line problems and then bypassed by more pressing space station assembly flights.
"If there was ever an example of good things coming to those who wait, this is it," launch director Michael Leinbach radioed to the crew shortly before launch. "From the many, many people who put this mission together, good luck and godspeed."
Columbia's commander, Rick Husband, who is making his second flight, replied: "The lord has blessed us with a beautiful day here and we're going to have a great mission. We appreciate all the great hard work everybody's put into this and we're ready to go."
With that, NASA cleared Columbia for blastoff at 10:39 a.m. ET and the start of a round-the-clock research mission to explore the affects of microgravity on a variety of living creatures -- including the astronauts themselves -- physical processes, such as combustion, and materials.
The crew plans to work in split, 12-hour shifts to maximize the research return on the flight, with Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon joining Husband, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla and payload commander Michael Anderson for the first task on orbit: setting up the research laboratory in Columbia's cargo bay.
NASA has not flown a shuttle-based research mission since John Glenn flew as a passenger and subject for geriatrics research in October 1998. The flight is a welcome addition for space researchers who have had few opportunities to conduct their work while space station construction is under way.
"This is (like) space station science, although the science itself stands on its own right," said John Charles, manager of the U.S. science investigations aboard Columbia. "The goal is to keep the scientists who are involved in this kind of activity engaged and productive and moving forward until the space station can assume the leading role in research."
Columbia is the first of six mission planned for this year, with all remaining flights dedicated to space station construction.