Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off into space on Saturday to bring back Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams after her six month stay at the International Space Station, the longest for any woman.
The mission was originally scheduled for mid-March but a hail storm damaged its fuel tank and the delay resulted in Williams staying three extra months in the space lab. With a seven-member crew onboard, the patched-up space shuttle lifted off into a clear blue Florida sky amid cheers at the Kennedy Space Centre and had a perfect ride to orbit.
The Centre's seaside launch pad had not been used since the 2003 Columbia disaster that killed India-born Kalpana Chawla on her second space mission and six other astronauts.
"The team really performed well," Rex Geveden, NASA associate administrator, said after a flawless launch and added that it is a really good day for NASA and for the US space program.
Atlantis, which is undertaking NASA's first shuttle mission this year, will reach the ISS on Sunday afternoon (0100 hours IST Monday).
Williams, 41, is also set to break astronaut Shannon Lucid's record for the longest stay in space ever by a woman -- 188 days and 4 hours -- on June 16, three days before Atlantis brings her back to Earth. A few pieces of foam fell off the shuttle during the launch but officials were not worried as they had to come expect that.
Williams will be in rehab for at least 45 days, depending on her health condition, after which both her parents will join her in Houston, where she has been living since 1998 after being selected as astronaut by NASA.
Rick Sturckow is commanding the shuttle and on board are pilot Lee Archambault, Mission specialists Patrick Forester, James Reilly, Seven Swanson and John olives and flight engineer Clayton Anderson who will replace Williams.
During the 11-day mission, Atlantis' crew will resume construction of the International Space Station. They will deliver a new power tower to the space lab, an addition that will provide electricity for long-awaited science laboratories built by the Europeans and Japanese.
This is the 28th flight for Atlantis and the first of four flights planned for 2007. Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations, termed it as a great start to the launch year after the culmination of many months of hard work from the damaging hail storm that struck Kennedy Space Center late in February.
"The external tank has performed in a magnificent manner," said Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale.
"This bodes well for the future as we look forward to the completion of the space station," he said.
In a countdown with almost zero technical issues, the only hurdle all week appeared to be the threat of late-afternoon thunderstorms lingering too long into the evening. No troublesome weather materialized.
"Good luck and Godspeed," Leinbach told shuttle commander Sturckow after polling the team and receiving a unanimous 'go' for launch. Two minutes after launch, flying at 3,700 miles per hour, the shuttle dropped its used-up solid rocket boosters and then continued its ride to space for another seven-and-a-half minutes before jettisoning the empty external tank.
An immediate look indicated no problems with the shuttle or launch debris, but the detailed video won't be available for a while. Atlantis is set to spend the next two days chasing the space station before a docking on Sunday.
While at the space station, three spacewalks will be conducted to install a new segment of the space station truss complete with a gigantic pair of solar arrays. The segment and arrays mirror a set delivered on the last mission back in December.
Sturckow and six men had to wait an extra three months for this launch. A hail storm in February dinged and gouged the external tank's foam insulation so badly that the shuttle had to be moved back off the launch pad for unprecedented repairs.