CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. After two months of delay, shuttle Atlantis blasted into orbit Thursday with Europe's gift to the international space station, a $2 billion science lab named Columbus that spent years waiting to set sail.
Atlantis and its seven-man crew safely roared away from their seaside launch pad at 2:45 p.m., overcoming fuel gauge problems that thwarted back-to-back launch attempts in December.
The same cold front that spawned killer tornadoes across the South earlier in the week stayed far enough away and, in the end, cut NASA a break. All week, bad weather had threatened to delay the flight, making liftoff all the sweeter for the shuttle team. The sky was cloudy at launch time, but rain and thunderstorms remained off to the west.
"Three, two, one, zero, and liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis as Columbus sets sail on a voyage of science to the space station," NASA's Launch Control exclaimed.
Probably no one was happier than the 300 Europeans who gathered at the launch site to see Atlantis take off with their beloved Columbus lab. They celebrated with Belgian and French chocolates and sparkling grape juice, in keeping with NASA's no-alcohol rule at the Kennedy Space Center.
"It's not very European," observed Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, smiling, as he popped open bottles of juice and filled plastic wine glasses. He flew on the last shuttle mission.
Twenty-three years in the making, Columbus is the European Space Agency's primary contribution to the space station. The lab has endured space station redesigns and slowdowns, as well as a number of shuttle postponements and two shuttle accidents.
"We're all as excited as heck," said an emotional Alan Thirkettle, Europe's space station program manager. "I've lost about 500 grams (about 1 pound) so far, and that's just been tears."
Columbus will join the U.S. lab, Destiny, which was launched aboard Atlantis exactly seven years ago. The much bigger Japanese lab Kibo, or Hope, will require three shuttle flights to get off the ground, beginning in March.
Atlantis' commander, Stephen Frick, and his U.S., German and French crew will reach the space station on Saturday and begin installing Columbus the very next day. Three spacewalks are planned during the flight, scheduled to last 11 or, more likely, 12 days.
"Certainly, no launch can be any more momentous than the launch of Columbus, which brings to the space station truly international capability and participation," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
Besides Columbus, Atlantis will drop off a new space station resident, French Air Force Gen. Leopold Eyharts, who will swap places with NASA astronaut Daniel Tani and get Columbus working. Tani will return to Earth aboard the shuttle, ending a mission of nearly four months.
To NASA's relief, all four fuel gauges in Atlantis' external fuel tank worked properly during the final stage of the countdown. The gauges failed back in December because of a faulty connector, and NASA redesigned the part to fix the problem, which had been plaguing the shuttles for three years.
NASA was anxious to get Atlantis flying as soon as possible to keep alive its hopes of achieving six launches this year. The space agency faces a 2010 deadline for finishing the station and retiring the shuttles. That equates to four or five shuttle flights a year between now and then, something Griffin considers achievable.
"We're coming back, and I think we are back, from some pretty severe technical problems that led to the loss of Columbia. We understand the foam now," he said, referring to the chunks of insulating foam that kept breaking off the fuel tanks.
Later in the day, Mission Control informed the crew that cameras spotted at least three pieces of foam or other debris coming off the fuel tank two minutes after liftoff. There was no evidence that the debris hit Atlantis, but the astronauts will pull out their laser inspection pole Friday for a routine survey of their spaceship.
Barring any more major mechanical trouble or freak hailstorms like the one that battered Atlantis's fuel tank one year ago, "this should be like some of those earlier times when we had some fairly interrupted stretches with no technical problems where we could just fly," Griffin said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That's what I'm looking forward to."