Space shuttle Discovery blasted into the twilight this evening, lighting up the sky and ending a series of frustrating delays for NASA in dramatic fashion. Up next for the crew is an important delivery for the international space station.
"I think when we work a little extra hard to get to the launch, it's a little sweeter when the launch occurs," NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier offered afterwards.
"It's a whole lot sweeter being here today than when we were here the other night talking scrub options," mission manager Mike Moses added.
The launch, at 7:43 p.m., came after more than a month's worth of delays. Concerns over fuel valves aboard Discovery postponed the original February launch dates, leaving NASA to try again last Wednesday. A beautiful weather day went to waste when a fuel leak was detected at one of the access arms to the external tank.
Up against a Tuesday launch deadline imposed by a planned Russian mission to the station, technicians scrambled to replace the suspect valve on the launch pad. Their hard work paid off as Sunday's countdown proceeded problem-free and the shuttle blasted into the evening sky.
It briefly appeared as though the night had lasted only minutes. With the sun only minutes beneath the western horizon, Discovery's boosters glowed brilliantly in the eastern sky as the shuttle rapidly climbed to orbit.
"I've seen a lot of launches and this was the most visually beautiful launch I've ever seen. It was spectacular," launch director Mike Leinbach observed.
The seven astronauts aboard Discovery have a busy few days ahead of them. The delays forced one day to be trimmed from the mission, but NASA still hopes to accomplish most of the originally planned objectives.
The primary goal of the mission is to deliver and install the final set of solar arrays to the space station, allowing it to support a larger crew. Discovery is also delivering a new astronaut to the station crew – Japan's Koichi Wakata – and bringing home Dr. Sandra Magnus, who's been aboard the station since November.
The shuttle is also carrying experiments to help engineers who are working on NASA's next generation of rockets. Sensors inside Discovery and the solid rocket boosters will record information about vibrations and other conditions that could pose problems for the Ares rockets.
NASA is also busy modifying the other space shuttle launch pad – the one not used for Discovery's launch – for use with the Ares rockets. Three giant lightning-diversion towers are rising up around the pad, dwarfing the existing pad structure.
The first Ares test launch is scheduled for July.
NASA's next shuttle mission is planned for May. Atlantis is expected to fly on the long-delayed final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.