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Shuttle blasts off with fancy lab and toilet pump

CAPE CANAVERAL — The shuttle Discovery thundered into orbit Saturday evening on a mission to transform the international space station with a $1-billion science laboratory from Japan.

The shuttle also has a more mundane but urgent task: delivering a pump to the station's broken toilet.

Against a perfect blue sky, Discovery began its 14-day mission on time, just after 5 p.m., with what NASA administrators later called a "flawless countdown."

"It's a gorgeous day to launch," NASA's launch director, Mike Leinbach, told the astronauts before liftoff.

Officials did see five pieces of foam that came off during the shuttle's ascent, but said the pieces appeared to be insignificant and caused no damage.

The Columbia disaster in 2003 was blamed on a piece of foam that came off during launch, damaging the shuttle.

The Discovery crew's first priority is to attach the Japanese laboratory to the space station, which the shuttle is expected to reach Monday.

The laboratory is the centerpiece of a Japanese research complex called Kibo, which will give the country its first manned facility where astronauts can conduct experiments for long periods of time.

Shuttle commander Mark Kelly called Kibo the "hope for the space station."

"Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth!" he said.

The 37-foot, 32,000-pound Kibo workshop — about the length of a tour bus — will be the largest room at the space station.

Kibo, which means "hope," is a historic step forward for Japan, which is gaining a foothold at the international space station alongside the United States, Russia and Europe.

"I would say it's the most exciting day ever for the Japanese space program," said Koichi Wakata, an astronaut with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The Kibo lab is more than 20 years in the making, he said.

Also on the Discovery crew's to-do list is cleaning a troubled gear that helps power the station.

Then there is the matter of the broken toilet.

For more than a week, the three astronauts aboard the station have had to manually flush the toilet with extra water several times a day — a time-consuming job.

NASA and Russian space officials hope that a pump, which was rushed to Kennedy Space Center from Moscow this week, gets the toilet working.

Only two of the seven-person crew, commander Mark Kelly and mission specialist Mike Fossum, have been in space before. The rest of the crew includes pilot Ken Ham, mission specialists Karen Nyberg, Ron Garan, and Greg Chamitoff; and Japanese mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide.

Nyberg is the 50th woman to go into space.

The crew will drop Chamitoff at the station, where he will stay until October, and bring back Garrett Reisman, who has been at the station since March.

A mission scheduled for next year will install Kibo's third and final piece, an exterior platform where astronauts can conduct outside experiments.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Shuttle blasts off with fancy lab and toilet pump 05/31/08 [Last modified: Sunday, June 1, 2008 1:24pm]
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