US space shuttle Discovery blasts off from Florida

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Oct 23, (Reuters) The US space shuttle Discovery blasted off on a pillar of fire today, soaring above Florida marshlands toward a rendezvous in two days with the International Space Station.

Discovery's 14-day mission kicks off a two-month refurbishment of the 100 billion dollar outpost that prepares the way for Europe's first permanent laboratory in orbit.

The shuttle roared through a partly cloudy sky at 2108 hrs (IST), defying predictions by meteorologists that clouds and rain could force a delay. A buildup of ice on the external fuel tank, which could have fallen off and hit the shuttle, was ruled out as a threat by NASA engineers.

''I'd like to wish you good luck, Godspeed and have a little fun up there,'' launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew shortly before liftoff.

The shuttle rode atop a towering plume of smoke as it arced over the Atlantic Ocean, accelerating toward a top speed of 28,400 km per hour once in orbit.

A shock wave rolled across the marshlands, scattering birds into the sky and the rumble from its engines and booster rockets shook the Earth for km around.

During Discovery's flight, its astronauts will install a new module on the space station that will anchor the long-awaited Columbus laboratory, the European Space Agency's main contribution to the project.

REUTERS GL PM2148

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