The space shuttle Endeavour bolted off its seaside launch pad in Florida on Monday, carrying six astronauts on a voyage to install the last two main pieces of the International Space Station.
The 4:14 am EST (0914 GMT) blastoff from the Kennedy Space Center shattered the predawn tranquillity with a deafening roar and a brilliant tower of flames that momentarily turned the dark Florida sky as bright as day.
"What a beautiful launch we had this morning," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space flight. "This is a great start to a very complicated mission."
Low clouds forced NASA to postpone Endeavour's first launch attempt on Sunday morning. Scattered clouds rolled in off the Atlantic on Monday morning as well, but cleared enough for Endeavour to slip through and begin its 13-day mission.
The shuttle carries the station's last connecting hub and a dome-shaped cupola with seven windows to provide the crew with panoramic views outside the station. Endeavour's crew is to install them during three spacewalks.
The modules were built in Italy for NASA and will complete US assembly of the orbital outpost, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that has been under construction since 1998. Four more shuttle missions remain to deliver cargo platforms, spare parts and experiments before the fleet is retired later this year. Monday's launch was the last scheduled to take place in the dark.
"Every launch is a little bittersweet," said Mike Moses, a shuttle program manager at the Kennedy Space Center. "We're one closer to the end."
The Endeavour crew includes commander George Zamka, pilot Terry Virts, flight engineer Stephen Robinson, spacewalkers Robert Behnken and Nicholas Patrick and mission specialist Kay Hire. The shuttle is scheduled to reach the station on Wednesday for a nine-day stay.
A couple of small pieces of insulating foam broke off Endeavour's external fuel tank during launch but did not appear to cause any damage to the spaceship, Gerstenmaier said.
There currently are no US vehicles to replace the shuttles, which began flying in 1981. For the near future, NASA is buying rides to the space station from Russia, which charges $50 million per seat on its Soyuz capsules.
NASA has been working on developing its own capsule called Orion that could travel to the moon as well as the space station, but with costs outpacing available funds, the Obama administration last week proposed canceling the program.
Instead, NASA would spend $6 billion over the next five years to help private companies develop space taxis.
Shuttle managers, who expect to lose their jobs, said the more people involved in building spacecraft, the better.
"There's no reason that just the government should be the one building and operating (them)," Moses said.
However, he said, "It's not as simple as it looks ... To go really high and fast takes a lot of effort, especially to come back down from there. I wish everybody the best of luck."