The space shuttle Discovery soared into space on late Saturday on a column of fire that briefly dispelled the darkness over the Kennedy Space Center in NASA's first night launch since the Columbia disaster.
Strong winds had put liftoff in doubt but the gusts subsided about an hour before Discovery took off at 8:47:35 pm (0147:35 GMT on Sunday) with a seven-member crew bound for the International Space Station. Bad weather postponed an initial launch attempt on Thursday.
"Forty-eight hours makes a tremendous difference," NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told Discovery's crew shortly before launch. "The weather is outstanding, the vehicle's in great shape, so we wish you all good luck, Godspeed and we'll see you back here in 12 days."
Replied Discovery commander Mark Polansky, "We look forward to lighting up the night sky."
During the 12-day mission, the astronauts will rewire the space station's electrical system, a crucial step in NASA's plan to finish building the outpost before the shuttles stop flying in four years. The launch was the third space shuttle mission in six months.
In addition to Polansky, the crew includes Sweden's first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang, pilot William Oefelein, flight engineer Robert Curbeam, and mission specialists Nicholas Patrick, Joan Higginbotham and Sunita Williams.
Managers recently lifted the ban on night launches, imposed after the 2003 Columbia disaster to ensure cameras had good lighting to spot any debris falling off the shuttle's fuel tank.
Debris damaged Columbia, triggering the breakup of the ship and the death of its seven astronauts as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The fuel tank has since been redesigned.
Discovery is scheduled to land on December 21 at the Kennedy Space Center.