CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., May 31 (Reuters) - Space shuttle
Discovery blasted off a seaside launch pad at the Kennedy Space
Center in Florida on Saturday to deliver Japan's huge new
research laboratory to the International Space Station.
The start of NASA's 123rd shuttle mission was as smooth as
they come, with no technical glitches and no weather issues as
the countdown clock ticked down to 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT).
That was the moment when Earth's rotation positioned the
shuttle for its most direct path to the orbiting space
The shuttle's twin booster rockets roared to life, joining
the ship's three hydrogen-burning main engines to catapult the
4.5-million-pound (2.04-million-kg) ship into the air. The load
was especially hefty with Japan's Kibo lab tipping the scales
at more than 16 tonnes.
"While we all tend to live for today, Kibo will give us
hope for tomorrow," said shuttle commander Mark Kelly. "Now
stand by for the greatest show on Earth."
Kibo, a complex that cost Japan about $2 billion to
manufacture, is being installed aboard the space station in
three flights. The elaborate complex includes a storage
chamber, launched in March, the main lab aboard Discovery and
an outdoor porch slated to fly next year.
Kibo's main segment is a 37-foot (11-metre) by 15-foot
(4.6-metre) cylinder that took up much of the shuttle's 50-foot
(15-metre) cargo bay.
Japan built a large complex to make sure there was plenty
of room for its own ambitious science program as well as those
of the station's other partner nations. The United States is
entitled to half of Kibo's lab space in exchange for building
and operating the station and launching the hardware.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin called the construction
of a lab capable of supporting humans in space a milestone for
"With this step, Japan has shown itself to be fully capable
of participating at the highest levels in space exploration,"
he said at a news conference after the launch.
The Kibo complex is as big as a tour bus and eventually
will be outfitted with 23 refrigerator-sized racks, 10 of which
will be devoted to science investigations.
SCIENCE AND CULTURE
In addition to fluid physics experiments, biomedical
research and other microgravity studies, Japan plans cultural
activities aboard Kibo, such as dance, art and sculpture.
"We're interested in creating a new art expression in
space," Junichiro Shimizu, an official with the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency, said in an interview.
Kibo was the main focus of Discovery's planned 14-day
mission. Most of that time will be spent at the space station,
which is in need of some maintenance and repair services.
Astronauts plan to replace a nitrogen tank that pressurizes
the station's cooling system and clean a metal ring that is
part of the solar power system. It is causing vibrations when
it spins a pair of solar wing panels.
Discovery is also carrying a new pump for the space
station's toilet, which needs to be manually flushed several
times a day. Until the new commode is installed, the
three-member station crew will be free to use the shuttle's
toilet, NASA space flight chief Bill Gerstenmaier said.
A NASA official said a preliminary look at launch images
showed that five pieces of insulating foam fell off the
shuttle's external fuel tank during its climb to space. But
none was expected to pose a danger to Discovery.
Fuel tank foam has been a concern for the space agency
since it triggered the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. A
piece of foam knocked a hole in the spacecraft's wing during
launch and the ship disintegrated on re-entry into Earth's
atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board.
The Discovery crew includes lead spacewalker Mike Fossum
and five rookies in space: pilot Kenneth Ham, flight engineer
Ronald Garan, lead robotic arm operator Karen Nyberg, Japan's
Akihiko Hoshide and space station flight engineer Gregory
Chamitoff, who will swap places with NASA's Garrett Reisman.
NASA has seven missions planned to finish construction of
the $100 billion station and two resupply flights before the
shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.