Shuttle Endeavour and a crew of seven blasted into orbit Tuesday on what was to be the longest space station mission ever, a 16-day voyage to build a gangly robot and add a new room that will serve as a closet for a future lab.
It was a rare treat: The last time NASA launched a shuttle at nighttime was in 2006. Only about a quarter of shuttle flights have begun in darkness.
"Good luck and Godspeed, and we'll see you back here in 16 days," launch director Mike Leinbach radioed to the astronauts right before liftoff.
"Banzai," replied Endeavour's commander, Dominic Gorie, using a Japanese exclamation of joy. "God truly has blessed us with a beautiful night here, Mike, to launch, so let's light 'em up and give 'em a show."
They did. The shuttle took flight with a flash of light, giving a peach-yellow glow to the low clouds just offshore before disappearing into the darkness.
Gorie and his crew face a daunting job once they reach the International Space Station late Wednesday night. The astronauts will perform five space walks, the most ever planned during a shuttle visit.
The launching site was jammed with Canadians and Japanese representing two of the major partners in the International Space Station. The Canadian Space Agency supplied Dextre, the two-armed robot that was hitching a ride aboard Endeavour, while the Japanese Space Agency sent up the first part of its massive Kibo lab, a storage compartment for experiments, tools, and spare parts.
Also on hand for the liftoff was a 19-member congressional delegation led by Rep. Nick Lampson, a Democrat from Texas, whose district includes Johnson Space Center in Houston. He is pushing for increased NASA funding.
For the first time since space station construction began nearly ten years ago, all five major partners were about to own a piece of the orbiting real estate. The launch of the first section of Kibo, or Hope, finally propelled Japan into the space station action.