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Apr 5, 2010 10:37 AM by Letitia Walker

Shuttle Launch Sets Record

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Discovery and seven astronauts

rocketed into orbit Monday on one of NASA's final stockpiling

missions to the International Space Station, its takeoff flames

bringing an early dawn to the coast with this last scheduled

shuttle launch in darkness.

The liftoff, less than an hour before sunrise, helped clinch a

record for the most women in space at the same time.

Three women are aboard Discovery, and another already is at the

space station, making for an unprecedented foursome. The shuttle

should arrive at the orbiting outpost Wednesday.

In a rare treat, the space station passed over the launch site

15 minutes before Discovery blasted off and was easily visible,

resembling a big, brilliant star in the clear morning sky with the

moon as a dramatic backdrop. Spectators were mightily impressed,

and there was a chorus of "Oooooh." By launch time, the outpost

had traveled almost all the way across the Atlantic.

"It's time for you to rise to orbit. Good luck and Godspeed,"

launch director Pete Nickolenko told the astronauts right before

liftoff.

"Let's do it!" replied commander Alan Poindexter.

Discovery could be seen with the naked eye for seven minutes as

it shot upward, adding to the show. And almost as an encore, the

exhaust plumes fanned out in spirals across the sky, turning pale

shades of rose, peach and gold in the glinting sunlight.

Japan celebrated its own space feat with Discovery's liftoff.

Two of its astronauts were circling Earth at the same time, one on

the shuttle and the other on the station. More than 300 Japanese

journalists and space program officials crowded the launch site;

the roads leading to the Kennedy Space Center also were jammed with

Easter vacationers and spring breakers eager to see one of the few

remaining shuttle flights.

Only three shuttle missions remain after this one. NASA intends

to retire its fleet by the end of September, but is unsure what

will follow for human spaceflight. President Barack Obama will

visit the area April 15, while Discovery is still in orbit, to fill

in some of the blanks.

NASA's moon exploration program, Constellation, already has been

canceled by Obama.

Poindexter and his crew will spend nine days at the space

station, replenishing supplies. The astronauts will install a fresh

ammonia tank for the cooling system - a cumbersome job requiring

three spacewalks. They also will drop off science experiments as

well as an extra sleeping compartment, a darkroom for the lab's

high-quality window, and other equipment totaling thousands of

pounds.

All these supplies are needed to keep the space station running

long after NASA's three remaining shuttles stop flying. NASA will

rely on other countries' vessels to deliver crews and supplies, but

none are as big and roomy as the shuttle.

The space station will continue operating until 2020 under the

Obama plan. The idea is for commercial rocket companies to

eventually provide ferry service for astronauts. Right now, NASA is

paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. That's how U.S.

astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson got to the space station Sunday, two

days after being launched from Kazakhstan.

Discovery's flight was the 35th in the shuttle program to begin

in darkness and, barring unforeseen problems, the last. The mission

was delayed more than two weeks because of this winter's unusually

cold weather. So instead of an afternoon launch, the shuttle took

off before sunrise, pushing all the action into the graveyard

shift.

The mission will last nearly two weeks and coincide with the

29th anniversary of the first shuttle flight on April 12.

Once combined, the shuttle and station crews will number 13:

eight Americans, three Russians and two Japanese.

Most everything went smoothly in Monday morning's countdown. A

half-hour before liftoff, a failure was noted in the Air Force

system for sending self-destruct signals to the shuttle in case it

strays off course. A backup line was working fine, though, and the

launch occurred at 6:21 a.m., right on time.

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