The Discovery space shuttle blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, in a spectacular pre-dawn launch on Monday. Carrying a crew of seven astronauts as well as equipment and supplies, it took off on a 13-day mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The shuttle, a multi-purpose logistics module, carries three women-mission specialists — Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson and Naoko Yamazaki. NASA said, “With three female crew members arriving on board Discovery and one already at the station, the STS-131 mission will mark the first time that four women have been in space at one time.” Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson is already at the space station.

NASA added, “And as there is one Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut on each crew, the mission is also the first time for two JAXA astronauts to be in space at the same time.” Monday's mission follows the successful launch of the Russian Soyuz TMA-18 from Kazakhstan. The Russian mission, also headed for the ISS, carried Ms. Dyson, Russian astronaut Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko.

The ISS, which orbits the Earth at a height of some 400 km, is due to be finished next year and is about 90 per cent complete. The mission entails three spacewalks, unloading, transfer and installation of equipment, replacement of an ammonia tank assembly and retrieving a Japanese experiment from the station's exterior, according to NASA. Earlier this year, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden had said President Barack Obama's new budget for space exploration would demonstrate “our commitment to extend the life of the International Space Station, likely to 2020 or beyond. This will keep a commitment to our international partners and develop the full potential of this amazing orbiting laboratory where humans regularly do things we have never done before in NASA.” On the future plans for the ISS, Mr. Bolden said, “We're going to start by using the ISS as the national lab that it was envisioned to be… All kinds of educators, colleges, science institutions, and other government agencies, will be using the ISS for research.” The new ISS budget provided for expanded opportunities in climate change: “NASA's Earth science programme has contributed greatly to our ability to understand climate change and its impacts.”