The shuttle Discovery, carrying a seven crew members and 10 tons of supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station, rocketed into orbit early Monday to kick off a three-spacewalk resupply mission.
With its three hydrogen-fueled main engines throttled up to full power, Discovery's twin solid-fuel boosters ignited with a crackling roar at 6:21 a.m. EDT, instantly pushing the spacecraft away from pad 39A.
Fifteen minutes before liftoff, the space station sailed 220 miles above the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shining like a brilliant "star" as it streaked away to the northeast.
Discovery's launch, timed for the moment Earth's rotation carried the launch pad into the plane of the station's orbit, occurred 22 minutes before the start of civil twilight and 46 minutes before sunrise.
Lighting up a clear pre-dawn sky, Discovery climbed into sunlight less than two minutes after liftoff, the churning cloud of exhaust from the shuttle's two boosters suddenly illuminated in a ghostly display for area residents and tourists.
The shuttle's climb to space appeared uneventful. A camera mounted on the side of the ship's external tank spotted a few pieces of presumed foam insulation falling away four minutes and 18 seconds after liftoff, but that was well after the shuttle had left the dense lower atmosphere where debris impacts pose the greatest threat.
If all goes well, commander John Poindexter and pilot James Dutton will guide the orbiter to a docking with the space station's forward port on Wednesday. Joining Poindexter and Dutton aboard Discovery are flight engineer Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, and spacewalkers Richard Mastracchio and Clayton Anderson, veteran of a long-duration stay aboard the station in 2007.
Discovery's launch continues an extremely busy period in the life of the space station, coming three days after launch of a Russian Soyuz capsule from Kazakhstan carrying three fresh crew member for the space station: cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko, and NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson.
The Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft docked with the station early Sunday and its crew joined Expedition 23 commander Oleg Kotov, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and NASA flight engineer Timothy Creamer. The expanded Expedition 23 crew will, in turn, welcome the Discovery astronauts to the lab complex.
With the shuttle program facing retirement later this year after a final four missions, the space station program is racing the clock to complete the outpost and stock it with supplies and spare parts before the heavy lift orbiter is grounded for good.
Kirk Shireman, deputy manager of the space station program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said that along with the final four shuttle missions, the program expects three more Soyuz crew launches this year, four Soyuz landings, six launches of unmanned Progress supply ships, the launch of a European Space Agency Automated Transfer Vehicle resupply mission, and six station-based spacewalks above and beyond the ones planned by visiting shuttle crews.
"So you can see, it's a busy time," he said. "The program focus is turning away from assembly. We're looking forward to fully utilizing ISS and extending the International Space Station to 2020. We'll have a very busy year and we're very much looking forward to it."