CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - After a month's delay, space shuttle Atlantis and its seven astronauts rocketed away Friday on a mission to fix the international space station, in orbit for just 1 years but already wearing out and losing altitude.
The shuttle lifted off in a spectacular dawn launch, its exhaust plumes glowing as the sun peeked out over the Atlantic. Atlantis' two spent solid-rocket boosters painted parallel pink streaks in the sky as they tumbled into the ocean.
With James Halsell Jr. in command, Atlantis immediately began chasing the space station and should catch up to it early Sunday.
"They say that good things come to those who wait and we waited for a while on this one, but the satisfaction is immense," said launch director Dave King. "And what a beautiful time of day to launch."
NASA had tried three days in a row last month to launch Atlantis but was thwarted each time by stiff wind. Friday was perfect for flying.
This will be NASA's first flight in a year to the space station, which except for a few brief visits from astronauts has been vacant the whole time it has been in orbit.
Since the last visit, two batteries have failed and two are failing. An antenna is broken. A crane is loose. And the station is slipping in orbit 1´ miles each week.
The crew's No. 1 job is to replace four of the six Russian batteries. Despite all their Mir experience, Russian engineers evidently charged the batteries at too high a rate and shortened their lifetime.
No. 2 on the checklist is to boost the station by 26 miles, using the shuttle as an elevator. The space station is dropping faster than usual because of increased solar activity, which causes the atmosphere to expand and spacecraft to sink. It is down to 207 miles above Earth.
The astronauts will also replace fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and fans that have exceeded their certified lifetime. And during a spacewalk Sunday night, two crew members will fix up the station's outside.
During NASA's last visit to the space station, astronauts had to contend with poor circulation on the Russian half of the orbiting outpost; they suffered headaches, nausea and dry, itchy eyes. And though they installed mufflers over noisy fans, a racket remained, again on the Russian side.
To cope with the stale air and noise, Atlantis' astronauts will carry small, personal fans and carbon-dioxide monitors and wear custom-fitted earplugs normally used by rock bands.
NASA never envisioned visiting shuttle crews having to do so much maintenance work. The tasks should have been done by space station residents. But no residents will move in until November at the earliest because of Russia's two-year delay in launching its service module, needed for guidance, navigation and life support.
The cash-strapped Russians insist the module should be ready to fly in July.
Space station deputy manager Robert Cabana said he considers the project more difficult than NASA's 1960s quest for the moon.
"We did that all on our own," Cabana said. "In this case, NASA's the integrator for a very complex international effort, and that increases the degree of difficulty tremendously."
This is Atlantis' first flight in three years. It was taken out of service for a nose-to-tail overhaul. Among the improvements: a Boeing 777-style cockpit with digital rather than mechanical controls.
The 10-day mission is scheduled to end on May 29.
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