Atlantis settled into orbit under a communications blackout after a dazzling night launch of the Pentagon's last secret shuttle mission. The ship reportedly carried a spy satellite aimed at Iraq.

Riding a 700-foot column of yellow flame, the shuttle lifted from its seaside launch pad at 6:48 p.m. Thursday, climbed smoothly into darkness, slowly dimmed to a speeding star and then winked from view more than 350 miles downrange.Atlantis' five-member, all-military crew reportedly planned to release a satellite that will focus cameras or electronic signal detectors on the Middle East, where American troops stand poised against Iraq.

A news blackout has been imposed on the mission, cutting off public release of communications between the crew and Mission Control. Only bare status reports will be issued during the four-day flight.

It was the first flight in eight months for Atlantis, one of two shuttles grounded during the summer because of hydrogen fuel leaks.

Mission Control spokesman Jeff Carr described the launch as "picture-perfect."

National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Richard Truly said it was "just about as smooth a countdown and liftoff" as he has ever seen. "We've got a good bird, a healthy crew and a good mission on the way," he said.

The mission is the seventh and final secret military flight planned for a shuttle. The Air Force has said that unmanned rockets, principally the Titan 4, will be used in the future to launch secret spy and communications satellites.

Col. Frank Stirling, who heads the Titan 4 program, said unmanned rockets offer greater reliability than NASA's fleet of three and ultimately four shuttles.

"With Titan we have a continuing production line with many Titans available, so that if we should ever have a problem or an outage with the vehicle, we would still be able to recover and continue operations," he said.