CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Discovery roared into orbit Friday on a mission to deliver a fresh crew to the international space station, leaving early to beat approaching storms.
The shuttle climbed into a clear but hazy sky at 5:10 p.m., carrying seven astronauts and cosmonauts, three of whom will spend the next four months in space. NASA launched the spaceship five minutes earlier than planned because of thunderstorms moving in from the south.
Launch managers worried throughout the day - and right up to the final nine minutes of the countdown - that thunderstorms might force a postponement for the second day in a row. But the rain and dark clouds stayed far enough away this time.
"Let's go!" said shuttle commander Scott Horowitz.
The space station was soaring above the Pacific, just west of the Galapagos Islands, when Discovery took off, and passed over the launch site 10 minutes later. The shuttle is the ride home for the three station residents, who have been in orbit for five months.
"Tell the Expedition 2 guys, 'Stand by, we're on our way,' " Horowitz called out. Mission Control swiftly relayed the message.
Discovery is due at the space station on Sunday.
The space station crew actually saw the smoke and vapor trail left in the sky by Discovery. "So they have physical evidence that you're on your way," Mission Control told the shuttle astronauts.
As it turns out, Discovery could have lifted off at the preferred time of 5:15 p.m. The approaching storms began to dissipate and veer slightly to the west. Launch director Mike Leinbach was delighted in any event.
"Wasn't that a great launch?" Leinbach asked his team. The controllers had practiced well in advance in case the countdown had to be shortened, and doing so imposed no extra stress, he said.
Before boarding Discovery, the space station's next commander, Frank Culbertson, held up the same sign that he did on Thursday but with a few additions. The sign read: "Hi Family! I Still Love You!" The word "still" was newly scribbled in.
"We're all very happy to be here and doing great and feeling good and happy to be on our way," Culbertson said after reaching orbit. It is his first space flight in eight years; he took time off to manage NASA's space station programs.
Culbertson will move into space station Alpha along with two Russians, Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin.
The space station's current commander, Yuri Usachev, and his U.S. crewmates, Jim Voss and Susan Helms, were dropped off by Discovery back in mid-March.
They saw a robot arm and air lock arrive during their mission and helped hook both up. The 58-foot arm encountered some start-up problems that kept the crew in orbit an extra month. Discovery was supposed to pick the three up in July, but this shuttle flight and the previous one were delayed because of the robot-arm trouble.
The three also had to contend with computer problems that still are not fully understood. One of the three critical command-and-control computers failed again just this week.
Discovery is hauling up a spare computer, as well as clothes, food, tools, labels, science experiments and a sleeping compartment. The space station has only two bunks; the men slept in those and Helms camped out in the Destiny laboratory.
Culbertson said one of his crew's first priorities will be to set up the new bunk in the lab, for use by Dezhurov. The three men will not have any shuttle astronauts visiting during their stay, but will welcome a Russian Soyuz crew this fall and take in an unmanned Russian docking compartment.
During the eight days that Discovery is docked to the space station, two of the shuttle astronauts will conduct a pair of spacewalks to attach a container of ammonia coolant, cables and experiments to the outside of the space station.
The shuttle is scheduled to return to Earth on Aug. 22 - 167 days after Usachev, Voss and Helms rode it into space.
This was NASA's eight space shuttle launch in just under one year. All were to the space station, now almost three years old.
This was also NASA's second launch in just three days. A robotic explorer named Genesis took off Wednesday on a mission to gather and return tiny particles of the sun; an unmanned rocket provided the lift.
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