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Atlantis takes off to fetch Sunita Williams

The US space shuttle blasts off into the sunset from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre to bring Indian American astronaut back home after a six-month sojourn in space.

world Updated: Jun 09, 2007 18:07 IST

US space shuttle Atlantis blasted off into the sunset from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre to bring Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams back home after a six-month sojourn in space.

Lifting off from a newly refurbished launch pad at 7:38 pm on Friday (5:08 am IST Saturday), Atlantis with a seven-man crew on board would reach an awaiting Williams at the International Space Station Sunday afternoon (1:00 am IST Monday), 220 miles above the southern Indian Ocean.

Astronaut Clay Anderson will replace Williams who is also set to break astronaut Shannon Lucid's record for the longest space flight ever by a woman -- 188 days and 4 hours - three days before Atlantis brings her back to Earth on June 19.

"The team really performed well. And it's a really good day for NASA and for this nation's Space Programme," said NASA associate administrator Rex Geveden with Atlantis safely in orbit after a "flawless launch".

The Kennedy Space Centre pad had not been used since the ill-fated 2003 Columbia disaster that killed Indian born Kalpana Chawla on her second space mission and six other astronauts on board.

"It took us a little while to get to this point, but the ship's in great shape. It's beautiful weather for you out there, so good luck and God's speed," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew shortly before lift off.

The shuttle is carrying the heaviest payload ever flown to the space station-a 45-foot long, 35,678-pound aluminium structure that will become part of the station's structural backbone. It includes a pair of solar wings and a rotary joint so the panels can track the sun for power.

Anderson will join Russian Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Oleg Kotov at the space station and would return with this year's third NASA space mission in October.

Atlantis was originally scheduled to fly in mid-March, but two weeks before blast-off the spaceship's fuel tank was damaged during a freak hailstorm that passed over the Kennedy Space Centre on Feb 26.

Thousands of dings and dents in the tank's insulating foam have been fixed, but the patchwork was clearly visible, as the new foam has not had time to oxidize and yellow in the sun like the rest of the tank. Despite its appearance "the external tank has performed in a magnificent manner," said Shuttle Programme Manager Wayne Hale.

The preliminary reports from the cameras that took images of the external tank during lift off showed no foam loss prior to solid rocket booster separation. "This bodes well for the future as we look forward to the completion of the space station," Hale said.

Since the Columbia accident, the space agency has been particularly sensitive to issues involving fuel tank foam. Columbia's tank shed a piece of insulation during lift off, which smashed into the ship's wing and broke a hole in its heat shield. The shuttle was destroyed as it attempted to fly through the atmosphere for landing 16 days later.

Recovery from the accident put NASA three years behind schedule in finishing the space station. The agency needs to fly at least 13 more missions to deliver all the major components before the fleet is retired in 2010.

The Atlantis crew also needs to fold an old panel that will be moved to another location on the station next year.

During NASA's last shuttle mission in December, the astronauts faced similar tasks and ended up having to make an unplanned space walk to coax a jammed panel into a storage box.

Williams has fashioned a special tool that looks like a hockey stick to help in the task this time. NASA also has backup plans and two extra days' fuel and supplies in case the mission has to be extended beyond the planned 11 days.