After two weeks of delay, space shuttle Atlantis blasted off, heading to the International Space Station (ISS) on the first NASA construction mission since 2003.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials said the mission entails the most complex work ever undertaken at the nearly eight-year-old, half-finished ISS.
Atlantis is making its 27th flight, five missions remain before its planned retirement in 2008.
The shuttle’s first flight was in October 1985. It last flew in October 2002.
Atlantis is named after the first US oceanographic research vessel, that operated from 1930-1966.
Completing the space station is central to US ambitions to fly humans to Mars. “What you saw today is a flawless count, a majestic launch. This vehicle has not flown since 2001 and not everything in the count leading up to this day was easy,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin said.
The shuttle reached orbit about nine minutes after its lift-off on Saturday, carrying six astronauts and cargo containing two huge solar panels to generate more power for the ISS.