CAPE CANAVERAL — After weeks of delays, the space shuttle Discovery roared to life Sunday, streaking into orbit atop a billowing white plume of exhaust that turned a glowing orange as the spacecraft climbed into the light of the setting sun.
"This was the most visually beautiful launch I have ever seen. It was just spectacular," said NASA launch director Michael Leinbach, noting that people at Cape Canaveral could see the twin pencil-shaped solid rocket boosters drop from the spacecraft and fall toward the Atlantic Ocean.
"I think when we work a little extra hard to get to a launch, it's all the sweeter when the launch actually occurs," said NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier.
Clear skies meant those watching from the Tampa Bay area also got an impressive show. The bright orange glow of the shuttle's rockets shot up over the horizon, followed by billowing smoke that turned pink, then white, in the reflection of the setting sun.
NASA plans only eight or nine more shuttle launches, so it's a view Tampa Bay residents will not be treated to many more times.
Sunday's launch sent seven astronauts hurtling toward the International Space Station, as NASA races to complete it and close out the shuttle era by the end of next year.
The seven Discovery astronauts are now en route to the space station, an orbiting laboratory that has been continuously inhabited since 2000. They are on a construction mission to add a truss to the station and to install its final set of solar panels. That will provide enough power so the current number of three astronauts living on the space station can double to six.
Space shuttles have launched 125 times, and only eight or nine missions remain. But even now, NASA is continuing to find new glitches and new reminders of the ever-present dangers of space flight.
Discovery's launch was scrubbed on a beautiful day last week because of a highly flammable hydrogen gas leak. So NASA called off the countdown and waited four more days. That forced NASA to cut a day and a spacewalk from this 14-day mission.
The launch was delayed from its original Feb. 12 date because NASA was studying a fuel valve that broke on the flight of Endeavour in November. The valves control the flow of hydrogen fuel, a key function.
"We're still continuing to learn about this vehicle," Gerstenmaier said.
Sunday's launch came in a time of transition for NASA, not only because shuttles might be mothballed after next year, but also because President Obama is expected to pick a replacement for NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said he had recommended former shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden for the job. "He's one of my best friends and he's one of the best leaders," Nelson said Sunday.
The mission is being closely watched in Japan because one of the astronauts, Koichi Wakata, will stay on the space station until June, making him the first from Japan to experience long-duration space flight. The mission also is notable because the crew includes two former middle and high school science teachers who became astronauts, Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold.
Times staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report.