CAPE CANAVERAL — Discovery, the world's most traveled spaceship, thundered into orbit for the final time Thursday, heading toward the International Space Station on a journey that marks the beginning of the end of the shuttle era.
The six astronauts on board, all experienced space fliers, including Nicole Passonno Stott, 48, who grew up in Clearwater and attended Clearwater High School, were thrilled to be on their way after a delay of nearly four months for fuel tank repairs. But it puts Discovery on the cusp of retirement when it returns in 11 days and eventually heads to a museum.
Discovery is the oldest of NASA's three surviving shuttles and the first to be decommissioned. Two missions remain, by Atlantis and Endeavour, to end the 30-year program.
It was Discovery's 39th launch and the 133rd shuttle mission overall.
"Enjoy the ride," the test conductor radioed just before liftoff. Commander Steven Lindsey thanked everyone for the work in getting Discovery ready to go: "And for those watching, get ready to witness the majesty and the power of Discovery as she lifts off one final time."
Emotions ran high as Discovery rocketed off its seaside pad into a late afternoon clear blue sky, and arced out over the Atlantic on its farewell flight. There were a tense few minutes before liftoff when an Air Force computer problem popped up. The issue was resolved, and Discovery took off about three minutes late, with just a few seconds remaining in the countdown.
"Discovery now making one last reach for the stars," the Mission Control commentator said once the shuttle cleared the launch tower.
Discovery will reach the space station Saturday, delivering a small chamber full of supplies and an experimental humanoid robot. "Look forward to having company here on ISS in a couple days," station commander Scott Kelly said in a Twitter message.
On-board TV cameras showed some pieces of foam insulation breaking off the external fuel tank four minutes into the flight, but that shouldn't pose any safety concerns because it was late enough after liftoff.
Throngs watched the launch from vantage points all along the Space Coast. Among those in the VIP area were Gov. Rick Scott, watching the first launch since he took office in January, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.