CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The shuttle Challenger rocketed a black astronaut and four other fliers into a 184-mile-high orbit today, riding a brilliant spear of fire that turned night into day in a spectacle seen 400 miles away.
The astronauts, surprised by their fiery sendoff, got down to work quickly and Guion Bluford, first American black in space, used a biological processing machine to purify living cells for the first time in space.
A television show eight hours after the early morning blastoff showed all five spacemen at work and, at times, clowning in the weightless space cabin. Astronaut John Blaha in Houston told the spacemen they had a 'super mission.'
Mission commander Richard Truly, co-pilot Daniel Brandenstein and mission specialist Dale Gardner told mission control what it was like to take off in the middle of the night atop two fiery solid booster rockets.
Dr. William Thornton, the fifth crewman and at 54 the oldest man in space, rode on the lower deck of Challenger's cabin and apparently missed much of the show.
To spaceport observers, it was like an instantaneous sunrise. The flame gushing from Challenger's boosters cast an eerie orange glow that brightened in seconds to virtual daylight intensity over the spaceport.
To the astronauts aboard Challenger, at one point it seemed like they were 'inside a bonfire.' That was when the two boosters were kicked away by explosive charges to parachute into the Atlantic ocean near two waiting recovery ships.
'It looked like we were just totally enveloped in a ball of flame,' Gardner said. 'The flame appeared to be all around us, like we were in the center.
'It looked like we were in a ball of flames for about 15 seconds. In fact, it looked like it was never going to stop. That really surprised us. It was quite a ride.'
Truly said the liftoff was like driving through a fog bank with an internal light that 'got brighter and brighter.'
The five astronauts were winding up their busy first day in space as they circled Earth for the eighth time. Astronaut Bill Fisher in mission control bid them goodnight at 1:18 p.m. EDT.
Before liftoff, President Reagan saluted Bluford on his historical trip.
'With this effort, we acknowledge proudly the first ascent of a black American into space,' Reagan said in a message to NASA.
A major test objective was achieved 1 hours after launch when the Challenger's communications were relayed to Earth for the first time by NASA's new $100 million tracking satellite for 34 minutes, bypassing ground stations across the United States.
The doors to Challenger's 60-foot long cargo compartment were opened as planned to expose the ship's cooling radiators to space. A brief telecast from the shuttle showed the open bay and its cargo.
Challenger, making its third flight and the eighth in the shuttle program, began the six-day mission when its three hydrogen engines and two booster rockets roared into life at 2:32 a.m. EDT -- 17 minutes late because of rain and clouds in the area. It was the first shuttle launch delay since the third shuttle flight 17 months ago.
The space machine was visible from the cape for more than 2 minutes, until its solid propellant booster rockets split away. Viewers in Miami 250 miles to the south and in Pensacola, Fla., 400 miles to the northwest reported seeing the ship, like an orange fireball, as it climbed into the dark sky.
'It was an absolutely gorgeous sight,' said Berndt Vonwahlde in Pensacola. 'It was like a very bright blinking star moving slowly to north.'
Principal goal of the mission is to launch a $50 million three-in-one satellite for the government of India Wednesday morning. The satellite is designed to relay up to 8,000 telephone calls simultaneously across India, beam television directly to 100,000 rural antennas and take weather pictures.
Also aboard Challenger are six white rats in an experimental space cage, 260,000 commemorative stamped envelopes to be sold by the U.S. Postal Service.
It was the first nighttime launching in the space shuttle program and the first manned launch at night since Apollo 17 set off for the moon at night nearly 11 years ago. The Russians also have launched at night.
The astronauts also will make the first night landing. They are scheduled to glide in the darkness to a landing on a brightly illuminated desert runway at 12:42 a.m. local time Labor Day at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
The night flight is required by the complexities of the Indian satellit deployment.
John Jacob, president of National Urban League, called the launch 'very significant' for the nation's blacks.
'What it says is that black Americans have the opportunity to struggle, just like anyone else. That's all America ever promises anyone. If the opportunity is there, we're prepared to meet the challenge.'