Discovery blasts off with crew of 7

Monday, March 16, 2009
John Raoux ~ Associated Press
Space shuttle Discovery lifts off Sunday from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven rocketed into orbit Sunday evening, setting off on a space station construction mission cut short by launch delays that dragged on for more than a month.

The launch, though late, turned out to be flawless and the prettiest NASA managers said they had ever seen.

Discovery rose from its seaside pad just as the sun was setting.

Launch controllers could see the shuttle for seven minutes, until it reached somewhere off the New York or New Jersey coast. "We were all rewarded with a beautiful, beautiful launch," launch director Mike Leinbach said.

A hydrogen leak prevented Discovery from lifting off Wednesday and, before that, hydrogen valves kept the shuttle grounded for weeks in February.

Launch pad repairs took care of the leak, and the astronauts were able to board their spaceship and lift off.

"Well, you had a little bit of a wait but that will just make the payoff that much sweeter," Leinbach told the astronauts.

Commander Lee Archambault and his crew, which includes two former schoolteachers, should reach the international space station Tuesday. They're delivering one last set of solar wings for the orbiting outpost and some critical equipment for a relatively new water-recycling system.

Discovery's mission will last 13 days and feature three spacewalks instead of four, the first of which will take place Thursday to install the new solar wings. The two wings will join six already in place and bring the orbiting outpost up to full power.

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