Launch lights up prime time

Saturday's space shuttle Discovery launch marks the first night lift off in four years.

Published December 10, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL - The fire of Discovery erupted on the launch pad Saturday, and turned a nearly starless night into day.

The space shuttle, making its first nighttime launch in four years, blasted away from Earth and toward the international space station right on time at 8:47 p.m., riding a column of flames that gleamed like a sunrise.

When the shuttle reached space eight minutes later and jettisoned its giant external tank, NASA officials cheered at what appeared to be the fourth successful shuttle launch since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

If the 12-day mission continues to go well, it will put NASA closer to its goal of resuming an ambitious shuttle mission schedule so astronauts can finish building the space station in 2010 and retire the shuttle fleet afterward.

"The weather's outstanding, the vehicle's in great shape, we'll see you back in 12 days," launch director Michael Leinbach said a dozen minutes before liftoff.

"We look forward to lighting up the night sky," shuttle commander Mark Polansky said from the Discovery's flight deck.

At the Pier in St. Petersburg, more than 150 people ooh-ed and aah-ed as a burst of red light ripped across the dark sky.

"I am watching the shuttle take off; it is so cool," Pamela Olson, a Trolley driver at the Pier, said into her cell phone as she stood on the fifth floor observation deck. "Yeah, astronauts ... it's awesome."

Earlier in the day, NASA had forecast only a 30 percent chance of launching, raising the possibility that it would scrub this flight just as it had on Thursday. But strong crosswinds dissipated, and the sky remained clear, giving the launch team an opportunity. As Discovery lifted off on Saturday, NASA workers aimed cameras and radar at the spacecraft to watch for falling foam or other debris. This was to check for the kind of problem that doomed the shuttle Columbia in 2003, when a chunk of foam peeled off the giant external tank and damaged the shuttle's left wing.

Any damage would be harder to see during nighttime, but NASA officials decided it was safe to launch Discovery in darkness anyway. One reason for their confidence: NASA now uses cameras and a laser to inspect Discovery's exterior while in orbit. So even if Discovery did suffer damage on Saturday night, officials should detect it long before the spacecraft plunges into the 3,000-degree heat of re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

NASA officials also say they are encouraged that the last two shuttle flights have been virtually problem-free, although a large piece of foam did fall on the first shuttle flight after Columbia last year.

For NASA, Saturday's launch capped an especially busy week, which showed how much the space agency already is looking beyond the era of space shuttles.

On Monday, the space agency announced plans to build a permanent, international base on the moon, using a new spacecraft to be called Orion. On Wednesday, scientists announced that water may currently exist in liquid form on the surface of Mars, a potentially revolutionary finding. Now Discovery has launched at nighttime, a move the agency had avoided since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

NASA test director Jeff Spaulding said this flight would be "one of the most complicated shuttle missions ever performed," although every remaining space shuttle mission will be complex.

From now on, every shuttle mission except one will be a construction job for the international space station. On the current mission, the crew will make three space walks and attach a truss segment to the station, in addition to rewiring its electrical system and setting up sturdy panels to protect portions of the station from tiny meteorites or other space debris.

NASA hopes a fast-paced flurry of flights will allow astronauts to finish building the station in 2010, after which the shuttle fleet will be retired. Allowing night flights gives the agency more potential launch days. NASA has tentatively scheduled five missions for next year.

The seven-member crew aboard Discovery is one of the most culturally diverse groups of astronauts to fly into space together. It's the first U.S. space flight ever to include two African-American astronauts: Joan Higginbotham, a former Kennedy Space Center employee who has become the third African-American woman to fly into space; and Bob Curbeam, who is making his third space flight. The crew includes two women, Higginbotham and Suni Williams, and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, now the first Swede in space.

Williams will stay aboard the space station for six months. In her place, Discovery will return with Thomas Reiter, a German astronaut with the European Space Agency, who has been on the space station since July.

This is the 117th space shuttle flight, and the 148th manned U.S. space flight.