Shuttle lifts off on key space station mission

After a series of delays, Atlantis finally launches Saturday with a payload that powers the future of the international space station.

Published September 10, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL - With the engines of Atlantis thundering skyward Saturday, the space shuttle program roared toward its final major task - the completion of the international space station.

Atlantis finally lifted off from Launch Pad 39B at 10:14 a.m., leaving behind an incandescent trail and a pillar of smoke as it rocketed above the clouds over Kennedy Space Center.

"We're ready to go to work," shuttle commander Brent Jett said from the captain's chair in Atlantis minutes before launch.

NASA has been trying to achieve a liftoff for two weeks, but the first four attempts were scrubbed by forces both natural (a lightning strike, a tropical storm) and man-made (a failed power cell and fuel sensor).

The shuttle had even been rolled off the pad at one point. But on the fifth try, mission managers cleared the orbiter of all technical and weather issues, ready to blast off for a rendezvous with the international space station.

"It's been a long road with a lot of detours," said orbiter test director Jeff Lauffer minutes before launch. "But your patience is about to be rewarded. It's time to fly."

Atlantis did just that.

"What you saw today was a flawless count and a majestic launch," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, "and it was not easy to get here."

NASA did track several pieces of foam and ice debris shed from the external fuel tank that may have struck the orbiter.

It was falling debris during launch that damaged Columbia's heat shield, and caused the shuttle to break up during re-entry in 2003.

But preliminary indications are that there was no damage, according to NASA.

On Saturday, the first debris fell off four minutes and five seconds into launch, when Atlantis was nearly in orbit. The air is so thin at that altitude that debris just floats off; at lower levels it can slam against the orbiter.

On the ground, engineers pored over images of the launch to check the orbiter for signs of damage, while astronauts did the same above using the robotic arm. The shuttle will get another examination by remote cameras when it arrives at the station.

Once Atlantis gets a clean bill of health, the hard part starts: delivering and installing a 17.5-ton truss of solar arrays at the international space station, the largest payload ever. The unfurled photovoltaic solar arrays will extend to 240 feet, and be able to rotate and track the sun. The arrays are needed to power future science modules that will also be delivered by shuttles - missions delayed by the loss of Columbia.

"You train, you spend all your time getting ready, and now you finally get to execute what you've dedicated your life to," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations , "and there is no better feeling."

It will take three spacewalks and 11 days of intensive work in space and at Houston's Johnson Space Center to finish the job.

That is just the start of NASA's ambitious plan to launch 14 more missions to complete the station by 2010 and Saturday was the last launch window for weeks. Another delay would have endangered the agency's tight launch schedule.

Assembling the station could be the last mission of America's reusable space plane.

The shuttle era began with Columbia's launch on April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. But since then the shuttle program has been dogged by tragedy and questions about safety, management and cost. The Challenger and Columbia accidents took the lives of 14 astronauts.

Now only three orbiters - 23-year-old Discovery, 21-year-old Atlantis and 15-year-old Endeavor - are left to complete the space station. Only the shuttles can carry the station's remaining segments. But one day they will be replaced by Orion, an SUV-sized Apollo capsule.

Scheduled to launch in 2014, Orion will set the stage for missions to the station, the moon and perhaps Mars.

The only other task left for the aging shuttle fleet would be to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, which will fail before 2010 without new gyroscopes and batteries. That mission, initially scheduled for this year, was canceled in 2004 because of the Columbia disaster.

It's risky. Rendezvousing with Hubble would take the shuttle so far from the space station that astronauts could not use it as a haven in case of trouble, such as if the shuttle's heat shield is damaged. Griffin said Hubble's fate will be decided in November.

Gerstenmaier said he doesn't see Atlantis' launch as an ending. Rather, he sees it as the dawn of the space station era.

"I don't think this is the beginning of the end," he said. "I think this is the beginning of the beginning."