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Shuttle Discovery soars into orbit

By
WILLIAM HARWOOD UPI Science Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The shuttle Discovery rocketed into orbit on a secret military mission Wednesday night, blazing through the heavens like a golden comet in a Thanksgiving eve skyshow visible for hundreds of miles.

Discovery's 14-story solid-fuel boosters ignited with a brilliant burst of fire and a thundering roar at 7:24 p.m. EST, instantly pushing the 4.5-million-pound spaceplane and its classified cargo -- believed to be a high-tech spy satellite -- away from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

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Strapped in on Discovery's flight deck were commander Frederick Gregory, 48, co-pilot John Blaha, 47 -- both Air Force colonels -- Navy Capt. Manley 'Sonny' Carter, 42, physician Story Musgrave, 54. Physicist Kathryn Thornton, 37, was seated alone on the shuttle's lower deck.

Gregory is the first black shuttle commander while Thornton is the first female astronaut named to a military space flight. The mission is expected to last four days with a landing Sunday at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

Two hours after liftoff, NASA issued a brief statement saying the $2 billion shuttle and its four-man, one-woman crew had been cleared to press on with their stealthy mission, a traditional milestone in any shuttle flight. And with that, the space agency ended its commentary about the flight.

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'Thanks a lot for everything you've done,' Gregory radioed launch director Robert Sieck in a pre-launch conversation monitored by reporters. 'You guys have done a superb job down there and we're thankful. We'll see you in a couple of days.'

Once in orbit, Gregory and the crew presumably began readying the shuttle's secret payload for launch Thursday, but NASA refused to provide details about the mission to keep the Soviet Union in the dark about the clandestine flight.

Liftoff of the seventh post-Challenger mission came two days late because of a lengthy booster repair job that turned the shuttle's countdown into a cliffhanger. The countdown Wednesday was held up 2 minutes at the T-minus five-minute mark by a technical problem, but after that it was smooth sailing.

It was only the third such after-dark spectacle in the eight-year history of the shuttle program and the first since Nov. 26, 1985, when the blazing night launch of Atlantis was visible from North Carolina to Cuba.

This time, rainy weather along the Eastern seaboard blocked Discovery from view in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, but viewers along Florida's coast as far south as Key West had a good view of the pyrotechnic liftoff.

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With Venus and Saturn setting to the west, Discovery arced east over the Atlantic Ocean, splashing the moonless night sky with a fiery golden plume from its giant boosters as it soared toward orbit on the fifth of six flights planned for 1989.

Discovery's boosters appeared to perform properly, each one burning up 1.1 million pounds of solid propellant before being jettisoned about two minutes after launch for a parachute descent to the Atlantic Ocean.

A spectator in Miami Beach, 220 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, said Discovery 'looked like a brilliant orange comet with a long tail that turned red and slowly disappeared into the night.'

From the Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle was visible for nearly seven minutes as it climbed toward orbit. Eight and a half minutes after takeoff, NASA spokeswoman Billie Deason said Discovery's three main engines shut down on schedule, putting the ship in a safe preliminary orbit.

As usual with such military missions, the exact launch time, widely known and reported prior to liftoff, was officially kept secret until nine minutes before takeoff when countdown clocks at the Kennedy Space Center press site suddenly came to life after a final built-in hold.

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Likewise, communications between mission control and the astronauts were not released, the duration of the flight will not be revealed until 24 hours after liftoff and neither the Air Force nor NASA will provide any details about Discovery's payload.

Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported earlier this month that Gregory and company planned to deploy a 6,000-pound satellite capable of eavesdropping on Soviet military and diplomatic communications from an orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.

The magazine said the giant satellite and its $45 million 'inertial upper stage' solid-fuel booster would be ejected from Discovery's payload bay during the ship's seventh orbit, about 10 hours after liftoff.

An identical satellite is believed to have been launched in January 1985 during the first military shuttle flight.

With the primary goal of the mission behind them, Discovery's crew presumably will devote the rest of the flight to routine engineering and scientific experiments before gliding to a touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to close out NASA's fifth fully classified shuttle flight.

One aspect of the mission that was not classified was the crew's menu. The shuttle's pantry was stocked with turkey for a Thanksgiving Day repast in space.

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The flight was the second for Gregory and Blaha, who was named to the crew in June after Discovery's original co-pilot, astronaut S. David Griggs, was killed in a private plane crash while practicing acrobatic maneuvers. It was the third mission for Musgrave and the first for Thornton and Carter.

With Venus and Saturn setting to the west, Discovery arced east over the Atlantic Ocean, splashing the moonless night sky with a fiery golden plume from its giant boosters as it soared above thousands of spectators along roads and beaches.

Discovery's boosters appeared to perform properly, each one burning up 1.1 million pounds of solid propellant before being jettisoned about two minutes after launch for a parachute descent to the Atlantic Ocean.

As usual with such military missions, the exact launch time, widely known and reported prior to liftoff, was officially kept secret until nine minutes before takeoff when countdown clocks at the Kennedy Space Center press site suddenly came to life after a final built-in hold.

Likewise, communications between mission control and the astronauts were not released, the duration of the flight will not be revealed until 24 hours after liftoff and neither the Air Force nor NASA will provide any details about Discovery's payload.

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