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Space shuttle finally lifts off from Florida

Written by: Staff
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla, Sep 9 (Reuters) Space shuttle Atlantis today roared off its seaside Florida launch pad after two weeks of delays, setting the stage for NASA to resume assembly of the International Space Station.

It was the final possible day for the launch before NASA would have faced a lengthy postponement while Russia flies a replacement crew to the space station.

The US space agency is eager to resume construction of the 100-billion dollars orbital complex, which was halted after the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, and has only four years to finish the job before the shuttle fleet is retired.

''It looks like your long wait is over,'' shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach told the Atlantis astronauts just before takeoff. ''We wish you all the best luck in the world, Godspeed and we'll see you back here in about two weeks.'' ''We're ready to get to work,'' replied Atlantis commander Brent Jett.

Carrying one of the heaviest payloads ever hauled into space by a shuttle, Atlantis blasted off at 2045 hrs IST, soaring through pockets of puffy white clouds as it headed up over the Atlantic Ocean.

Two minutes after liftoff, the shuttle jettisoned its twin solid rocket boosters, which will be recovered and refurbished for a future flight.

Atlantis' hydrogen-fueled engines continued firing for another 6 1/2 minutes, catapulting the shuttle to a speed of 17,500 mph (28,160 kph) and into an orbital perch about 225 km above the planet.

Atlantis' astronauts started working even before reaching orbit, scrambling out of their seats to grab cameras and photograph the shuttle's nearly empty fuel tank separating from the shuttle and falling back toward Earth.

Engineers will scrutinise the images to determine if the tank's insulation remained intact during the supersonic climb to space.

Falling foam insulation caused the loss of the shuttle Columbia, which was struck by a piece of debris shortly after liftoff. The impact damaged the ship's heat shield and the shuttle broke apart 16 days later as it returned through the atmosphere for landing. All seven astronauts aboard died.

BUSY SCHEDULE NASA spent 3-1/2 years redesigning the tank so that it would no longer shed dangerous debris, then tested the modifications during a pair of test flights in July 2005 and two months ago. Atlantis is only the third shuttle to fly since the accident.

The six astronauts aboard the shuttle face a jam-packed, 11-day schedule. They will carry out time-consuming heat shield inspections mandated since the accident, and also have a complicated installation to perform on the space station.

The shuttle carries a 372-million dollars truss segment that contains the station's second set of solar arrays and a rotary joint so the panels can track the sun.

The chore requires careful coordination between the shuttle and the station's robotic cranes, oversight from NASA's Mission Control in Houston, as well as the full attention of the shuttle and station crews.

Three spacewalks are planned during the flight. NASA has one extra day available if problems develop during the solar array deployment or if engineers need the crew to make additional inspections of the ship's heat shield.

Atlantis must leave the station by September 18 to clear the way for the arrival two days later of a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying two new station crew members and Iranian-born American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to fly as a tourist to the outpost.

Atlantis is scheduled to return to the Kennedy Space Center before dawn on September 20.

Crew members aboard are commander Brent Jett, 47, pilot Chris Ferguson, 45, flight engineer Dan Burbank, 45, lead spacewalker Joe Tanner, 56, Canadian space agency astronaut Steve MacLean, 51, and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, 43. She and Ferguson are the only rookie fliers.

REUTERS SBA LS RAI2219

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