Running six months late, the shuttle Columbia's crew finally blasted off Sunday on a 10-day flight to aim a $150 million battery of telescopes at the most violent stars and galaxies in the universe.
Turning night into day, the leak-free shuttle's powerful solid-fuel boosters ignited with a brilliant rush of flame at 1:49 a.m. EST - 21 minutes late for a last-minute check of low clouds in the area - instantly pushing the 4.5-million-pound spaceplane away from Earth."Roll program!" radioed commander Vance Brand as the shuttle lined up on a proper trajectory.
Liftoff of the 38th shuttle mission, NASA's second in a record-tying 17 days, came six months behind schedule - another shuttle record - because of dangerous hydrogen leaks that blocked launch attempts in May and September.
But after resolving a handful of minor technical glitches Saturday, it was clear sailing Sunday and Columbia, looking like a giant comet streaking across the night sky, majestically climbed away atop twin pillars of flame, thrilling thousands of spectators lining area roads and beaches.
At the controls were Brand, 59, and co-pilot Guy Gardner, 42. Their crewmates are John "Mike" Lounge, 44; Robert Parker, 53; Jeffrey Hoffman, 46; and civilian astronomers Ronald Parise, 39, and Samuel Durrance, 47.
The first item on the agenda for the astronauts after reaching orbit Sunday was to begin activating Columbia's "Astro-1" payload, a complex task expected to take up most of the crew's first day in orbit. Science observations are scheduled to begin early Monday.
"We believe this one is going to be the one with the charm," NASA science chief Lennard Fisk said of Columbia's rocky road to orbit.
In Soviet Central Asia, meanwhile, engineers readied a Soyuz booster for launch later Sunday to carry a crew of three, including a Japanese television journalist, to the Mir space station where two cosmonauts have been on duty since Aug. 1.
If all goes well with both launches, a record 12 humans will end up in orbit at the same time.
The goal of the 38th shuttle mission, the sixth this year, is to study the most energetic stars and galaxies in the universe by analyzing high-energy X-rays and ultraviolet light that cannot penetrate Earth's atmosphere.
"Astro has a revolutionary sensitivity that we have never had before in space. So we are expecting a number of important discoveries," Fisk said.
To collect as much data as possible, the astronauts will work around the clock in two 12-hour shifts, with Hoffman, Lounge and Durrance making up the "day" crew and Parker, Gardner and Parise staffing Columbia for the overnight shift. Brand is not assigned a specific shift.
Unlike the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope, the four telescopes making up the Astro-1 payload will remain inside Columbia's cargo bay throughout the mission, operated by the astronauts from the crew cabin much like a normal observatory.
By extending humanity's vision beyond the blue end of the electromagnetic spectrum, Columbia's crew may find evidence for the existence of as-yet-unseen black holes, gain insights into the nature of enigmatic quasars, exploding suns and galaxies with "active" centers that send out torrents of energy.
The astronauts also plan to teach an astronomy lesson from space that will be beamed into classrooms on Earth and to chat with "ham" radio operators around the world as time permits, including the Soviet cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station.
Columbia is scheduled to land at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to close out a nine-day, 21-hour and 57-minute mission.
The shuttle originally was scheduled for blastoff May 30 but the flight was grounded the night before when sensors detected explosive hydrogen gas spewing into the ship's engine room.
Three suspect fuel pumps were replaced before engineers discovered a partially crushed seal in a valve leading to main engine No. 3.