- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) | With Internet-savvy NASA fans cheering on the shuttle and churning out constant Twitter updates, Atlantis sailed smoothly into orbit Monday with six astronauts and a full load of spare parts for the International Space Station.

The supply run should keep the space station humming for years to come and have the shuttle astronauts in space through Thanksgiving.

Atlantis was clearly visible as it shot through thin afternoon clouds, to the delight of Twittering space enthusiasts who won front-row seats to the launch. The 100 contest winners splashed news - mostly Tweeting “wow” and “amazing” about the liftoff - over countless cell phones and computers in 140 characters or less.

“What’s exciting to me is that they’ve captured the spirit and the excitement that we all feel, and they were able to capture it in a very few number of characters,” NASA space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier said with a chuckle. “They’re amazing, little, short statements about what they felt.”

Atlantis will reach the space station Wednesday. As the shuttle blasted off, the station was soaring 220 miles above the South Pacific. Launch director Mike Leinbach wished the astronauts good luck and said, “We’ll see you back here just after Thanksgiving.”

“We’re excited to take this incredible vehicle for a ride and meet up with another incredible vehicle,” shuttle commander Charles Hobaugh replied.

NASA wants to stockpile as many pumps, tanks, gyroscopes and other oversized pieces of equipment as possible at the space station before the three remaining shuttles retire next fall. None of the other visiting spacecraft is big enough to carry so many large pieces.

The space agency expects to keep the space station flying until 2015, possibly 2020 if President Obama gives the go-ahead.

During their 11-day flight, Mr. Hobaugh and his crew, including the first orthopedic surgeon in space, Dr. Robert Satcher Jr., will unload the nearly 30,000 pounds of equipment and experiments. Most of the gear will be attached to the outside of the space station on storage platforms.

Three spacewalks will be conducted beginning Thursday to hook everything up and get a jump on the next shuttle flight.

The launch seemed to go perfectly. Only three small pieces of foam insulation were spotted coming off the fuel tank, and it was not a concern, said Mr. Gerstenmaier.

“What a great way to start this mission,” he told reporters. He cautioned that the flight ahead was tough, and “we need to stay focused.”

While NASA officials were pleased, the Twittering invitees were downright ecstatic. They were among the first to sign up online last month for the opportunity to see a launch up close, and filed Twitter updates practically nonstop.

“The Wi-Fi and cellular networks are so bogged down with excited Tweets that it is hard to get messages out,” posted Laura Burns, 33, a Columbia, Md., software systems engineer.

NASA estimates the 100 Tweeters, or Tweeps as they’re called, have a combined following of more than 150,000.

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