Ending a five-month launch drought, the shuttle Discovery crew rocketed into orbit Saturday and successfully dispatched the European Ulysses probe on a five-year voyage over the uncharted polar regions of the sun.
The small 807-pound Ulysses probe, bolted to the top of a massive 43,000-pound three-stage booster, was gently ejected from its cradle in Discovery's cargo bay on time at 1:48 p.m. EDT, six hours and one minute after the ship's launch on the 36th shuttle mission."A good deploy, Houston, Ulysses is on tis way," said shuttle skipper Richard "Dick" Richards as the probe gracefully floated away on the first leg of its $750 million mission.
With Discovery parked a safe distance away, all three stages of the probe's custom-built $87 million rocket fired in rapid succession, boosting Ulysses' velocity to a record 34,130 mph and making it the fastest man-made object in the universe.
To get into the proper orbit around the polar regions of the sun, Ulysses was launched to Jupiter for a 1992 flyby that will utilize the planet's gravity for a course-changing boose back toward the inner solar system.
It took several minutes to confirm a sucessful rocket firing, and the relief was evident when the word finally came.
"Discovery, (this is) Houston. For your information, the Guam ground station has picked up the Ulysses spacecraft just where they thought it ought to be," astronaut Kathryn Thornton radioed the shuttle from Houston.
"Fantastic!" astronaut Thomas Akers replied.
Built by the European Space Agency, Ulysses is the centerpiece of an unprecedented project to study the polar regions of the sun, giving scientists their first three-dimensional look at Earth's life-giving star, its comples magnetic field and the enuous "solar-wind."
For the hundreds of men and wome who labored for years turning the dream into reality, Ulysses' launch was an emotional experiece.
"Fourteen years after I started on this project, I've finally seen the thing go," said European Space Agency project manager Derek Eaton.