Space shuttle Discovery and seven astronauts blazed into orbit on Friday (Saturday in India) on a spectacular midnight flight to the international space station, hauling up a treadmill named after a TV funnyman and thousands of kg of more solemn supplies.
Discovery lit up the sky for kilometres around as it thundered away on NASA's third launch attempt. Lightning flashed far in the distance, and the ascending shuttle resembled a bright star until it blinked out of sight five minutes after liftoff.
The space station was soaring more than 354 km above the Indian Ocean, southwest of Tasmania, when Discovery took off. The shuttle will reach the orbiting outpost Sunday night.
“It looks like third time really is the charm,” launch director Pete Nickolenko told commander Rick Sturckow. “We wish you and your team good luck and Godspeed.”
Tuesday's launch attempt was called off by thunderstorms and Wednesday's by fuel valve trouble. Everything came together in NASA's favour on Friday night; even the valve and its indicator switch behaved, allowing the shuttle to blast off seconds before midnight (around 9.30 am IST, Saturday).
Discovery's most prominent payload is NASA's new $5 million treadmill, which is named after Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.
Mr. Colbert tried to get a space station room named after himself and even won the online vote earlier this year, but NASA went with Tranquillity instead in honour of the 40th anniversary of man's first moon landing.
The comedian said the treadmill — for “all those chubby astronauts” — is a consolation prize.
The treadmill is flying up in more than 100 pieces and won't be put together until sometime next month.
In all, the space shuttle will deliver about 7,700 kg of gear to the space station. The experiments include six mice that will remain at the orbiting complex until the following shuttle visit in November. Part of a bone loss study, the mice will be the first mammals — other than humans — to spend a prolonged period at the space station.
“Let's go step up the science on the international space station,” Mr. Sturckow radioed right before liftoff.
Three spacewalks will be performed during the 13-day shuttle flight, to install a new ammonia tank, part of the space station's cooling system, and replace other equipment and retrieve outdoor experiments.
The station also will get a new resident, Nicole Stott. She will replace an astronaut who moved in during the 13-day shuttle flight last month. That spaceman will return to Earth aboard Discovery, as will Buzz Lightyear. The action figure toy has been in orbit for more than a year, courtesy of Walt Disney World.
Ms. Stott, who will spend at least three months at the space station, tapped her heart with her right hand before climbing aboard Discovery and said, ``I love you'' to the cameras, presumably for her husband and 7-year-old son.
Discovery's crew includes two Hispanics, the first time two have flown together in space. Both are Mexican-Americans, and one of them, Jose Hernandez, grew up in a migrant worker family. Hernandez will file bilingual Twitter updates from orbit. A Swede is also on board.
It was NASA's 33rd night-time shuttle launch and preceded, by just two days, the 25th anniversary of Discovery's first liftoff. Flags flew at half-staff throughout Kennedy Space Center on Friday in memory of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Only seven shuttle flights remain, including this one. A blue-ribbon review committee should file its report soon, offering options to President Obama for the direction of NASA's human spaceflight programme. As it stands now, the space shuttles will be retired after space station construction is completed in the next year to year-and-a-half.