Space shuttle Endeavour and a crew of seven blasted into the night sky on Friday, bound for the international space station and the most extreme home makeover project ever attempted by astronauts.
The shuttle rose off its launch pad at 7:55 pm. EST (0055 GMT Saturday), right on time, in a brilliant flash of light visible for miles around.
"We're about to get an extreme home makeover. It's an exciting day," space station commander Mike Fincke radioed to Mission Control. "It doesn't get better than this, my friends." Endeavour's astronauts will double as kitchen and bathroom installers once they arrive at the space station on Sunday, hooking up extra cooking and sleeping equipment so the space station's crew can expand next year. They will deliver a new refrigerator as well, giving station residents much-desired cold drinks for a change. The nighttime launch was a special treat for onlookers. Only about a quarter of all shuttle flights begin in darkness, and this one made for a spectacular show. The moonrise that preceded the launch was an extra touch; the nearly full moon provided a breathtaking backdrop.
"The vehicle's in good shape, the weather's beautiful," launch director Mike Leinbach. "Good luck, Godspeed, and have a Happy Thanksgiving on orbit."
"It's our turn to take home improvement to a new level," replied commander Christopher Ferguson.
NASA almost called off the launch at the last minute because a door on the launch pad that was not secured by workers. Launch controllers assured everyone that the door would not strike Endeavour and that, at worst, the room used to gain access to the shuttle would sustain damage.
Endeavour and its crew will spend 15 days in orbit, including the Thanksgiving holiday on Nov 27.
Filling the payload bay are thousands of pounds of equipment for the space station _ enough to allow NASA to double the size of the space station's three-person crew by June.
Among the additions: two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchenette, exercise machine and NASA's revolutionary new recycling system designed to turn urine and condensation into drinking water. All this will transform the space station into a five-bedroom, two-bath, two-kitchen home capable of housing six residents. "In a way, this is a working man's flight," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
"This is something that's the size of a small ship, and it needs a lot to keep it running. This is one of the flights where we deliver those things," Griffin told The Associated Press. The accouterments _ as Griffin calls them _ also are intended to make life "bearable" for the astronauts spending months there. Endeavour's five men and two women will help install all the new equipment, with help from the space station's three residents. The shuttle crew also will take on a lube job at the orbiting outpost, which was soaring 220 miles (354 kilometers) above the South Pacific when Endeavour thundered off.
A massive joint that rotates half of the space station's solar wings toward the sun has been jammed for more than a year; it's clogged with metal grit from grinding parts. The spacewalking astronauts will spend most of their time working on that joint and also add extra grease to keep a twin joint working. NASA hopes to stretch the mission to 16 days if possible, which would put touchdown late in the Thanksgiving weekend. The space agency has just 10 more shuttle flights, including this one, before the fleet is retired in 2010 to make way for a new rocketship capable of flying to the space station and, eventually, carrying astronauts to the moon. An additional shuttle flight or two could be in NASA's future, however, to try to narrow the projected five-year gap between the last shuttle flight and the first manned launch of the new spaceship.