CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space shuttle Discovery and seven astronauts blasted off on Monday on one of NASA’s final servicing missions to the International Space Station.
With a brilliant flash of light and a thundering roar, the shuttle lifted off at 6:21 a.m. EDT (11:21a.m. British time) shattering the predawn calm around the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
The launch marked the start of NASA’s 131st shuttle mission and Discovery was scheduled to reach the space station on Wednesday for a nine-day stay.
“The vehicle is clean, weather is good and this team is ready. It is time for you to rise to orbit. Good luck and Godspeed,” launch director Pete Nickolenko radioed to the Discovery crew shortly before liftoff.
“Let’s do it,” replied commander Alan Poindexter. “We’ll see you in a few weeks.”
Discovery is carrying an Italian-built cargo hauler filled with equipment, experiments, food and supplies for the space station, which has been under construction about 220 miles (355 km) above Earth since 1998.
The United States plans to stop flying Discovery and sister ships Atlantis and Endeavour after three more missions to stock the station with spare parts and gear too big or bulky to load on other spaceships.
The shuttles, which can carry about 25 tons to the station’s orbit, are being retired due to cost and safety concerns.
The U.S. space agency is turning over cargo deliveries to two commercial firms — the privately held Space Exploration Technologies of California and Orbital Sciences Corp of Virginia. Station partners Russia, Europe and Japan also have vessels that can haul cargo to the outpost.
Crew transport already is handled exclusively by Russia, which flies its three-person Soyuz capsules at a cost of $51 million per seat.
The Obama administration is proposing to boost NASA’s budget by $6 billion over five years to seed development of commercial space taxis in the United States.
The only other country that has launched people into orbit is China, which is not a member of the space station partnership.
Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, plans to debut its Falcon 9 rocket next month on a demonstration mission. Founder and chief executive Elon Musk, a multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur, says it will take about three years to develop a launch escape system so SpaceX’s Dragon capsule can carry people.
Other firms, including Boeing and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, are working on space taxi development under NASA grants.
The Obama administration wants to cancel the shuttle’s follow-on program, called Constellation, which aimed to return U.S. astronauts to the moon in 2020.
A independent review found the $108 billion (70.6 billion pound) program was severely underfunded, with no hope of reaching its goal without a $6 billion a year increase in NASA’s $18 billion annual budget.
Instead, Obama is pushing a technology development initiative aimed at an eventual international mission to Mars. Legislators, particularly from Florida, Texas and Alabama which have thousands of jobs tied to the space program, have been sharply critical of the president’s plan.
Obama is scheduled to host a conference on space at or near the Kennedy Space Centre on April 15.
The conference will unfold as Discovery wraps up its cargo-delivery and maintenance call at the station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations.
The crew plans to conduct three spacewalks to install a new tank of ammonia coolant, replace one of the station steering system’s gyroscopes and work on the Canadian robot Dextre.
Discovery’s four-man, three-woman crew will be delivering about 10 tons of equipment and supplies to the station, including a fourth U.S. sleeping berth, a freezer for experiment samples and a work station the station crew will use to assess the effectiveness of their exercise routines.
In addition to Poindexter, the crew includes pilot James Dutton, spacewalkers Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson, flight engineer Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, mission specialist Stephanie Wilson and Naoko Yamazaki, an astronaut with JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Dutton, Metcalf-Lindenburger and Yamazaki are making their first flights.
Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Tom Brown and Doina Chiacu