- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - The Space Shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven blasted into orbit yesterday, carrying a giant Japanese lab addition to the International Space Station, along with something more mundane - a toilet pump.

Discovery roared into a brilliant blue sky dotted with a few clouds at 5:02 p.m., right on time.

The shuttle’s trip to the space station should take two days. Once there, Discovery’s crew will unload and install the $1 billion lab and hand-deliver a specially made pump for the outpost’s finicky toilet.

The school-bus-size lab, named Kibo, Japanese for hope, will be the biggest room by far at the space station and bring the orbiting outpost to three-quarters of completion.

“It’s a gorgeous day to launch,” NASA’s launch director, Mike Leinbach, told the astronauts just before liftoff, wishing them good luck and godspeed. Cmdr. Mark Kelly noted that Kibo was the “hope for the space station,” then radioed: “Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth!”

Nearly 400 Japanese journalists, space program officials and other guests jammed NASA’s launch site, their excitement growing as the hours, then minutes counted down.

The Japanese lab is 37 feet long and weighs more than 32,000 pounds, and fills Discovery’s entire payload bay. The first part of the lab flew up in March, and the third and final section will be launched next year. The entire lab, with all its pieces, cost more than $2 billion.

A large political contingent was on hand for the launch, led by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, and newly married to Cmdr. Kelly, Discovery’s commander. They invited numerous bigwigs from Arizona and Washington. Mrs. Giffords acknowledged being nervous, far more so than the day she was elected to Congress in 2006. She gripped her mother-in-law with her right arm and held her own mother’s hand in her left as she watched Discovery soar.

“It was pretty exciting, pretty exciting,” Mrs. Giffords said. Although it was a smooth launch - the only problem was the apparent failure of a backup set of electronics for swiveling engines - she said she wouldn’t relax until the shuttle is back from its two-week mission.

About five pieces of debris - what appeared to be thin pieces of insulating foam - broke off the fuel tank during liftoff, but the losses did not occur during the crucial first two minutes and should be of no concern, said NASA’s space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier. This was the first tank to have all of the safety changes prompted by the 2003 Columbia disaster built in from the start.

Discovery’s rendezvous with the space station Monday will provide a good look at the shuttle’s thermal skin, Mr. Gerstenmaier said.

The astronauts cannot conduct a full inspection until near the end of the flight, much later than usual, because their inspection boom is at the space station. There wasn’t room for it aboard Discovery, given Kibo’s size, and so the last shuttle visitors left behind their boom.

Cmdr. Kelly’s brother, Scott, didn’t need an invitation to the launch. He’s also a space shuttle commander. They’re identical twins.

Scott Kelly said it was more nerve-racking to watch his brother launch than to be strapped in himself. Their parents and 91-year-old grandmother are always anxious on launch day, he said.

“I know my grandmother, she would rather I work at Wal-Mart,” Scott Kelly said, chuckling.

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