Dodging gusty winds and threatening thunderstorms, the shuttle Endeavour, the nation's newest orbiter, found a hole in the clouds Thursday and blasted off on its maiden voyage.
The weeklong mission, one of the most challenging in the 11-year history of the space shuttle program, began at 4:40 p.m. PDT, 34 minutes behind schedule, with a fiery liftoff from launch pad 39-B at the sprawling space center.
The new shuttle traced a graceful arc high over the Atlantic Ocean as it thundered toward orbit.
"It was sweet," said Daniel S. Goldin, the new administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "I think tonight we saw the very best of America."
The launch followed a virtually flawless countdown, marred only by a minor computer glitch and by nagging concerns about the weather in Florida and at an emergency landing site in Morocco.
A low-pressure trough off Florida's east coast spawned thunderstorms and a persistent cover of low, thick clouds that began to break up about an hour before liftoff. Rain at the Ben Guerir landing site in Morocco cleared in time to permit the launch.
Endeavour's flight, scheduled to end next Thursday evening at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is to include three space firsts.
Four of the seven crew members--Richard J. Hieb, 36, Navy Cmdr. Pierre J. Thuot, 36, Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas D. Akers, 40, and astronaut Kathryn C. Thornton, 39--working in teams of two, are scheduled to complete a record three spacewalks. The walks are intended in part to test astronaut endurance for the grueling work of constructing the planned space station Freedom.
During the first walk, scheduled for Sunday, Hieb and Thuot will attempt another first when they try to rescue and relaunch a $150-million communications satellite. The Intelsat VI, which will broadcast signals from the Summer Olympics in Barcelona if the mission is successful, was stranded in a useless low orbit two years ago when the commercial rocket that carried it aloft malfunctioned.
In the two subsequent spacewalks, the Endeavour crew will be the first to practice in space the critical techniques and maneuvers that will be used in assembling the $30-billion space station, beginning with a shuttle mission planned for late 1995.
Named after the 18th-Century ship that was the first command of Capt. James Cook, the legendary British explorer of the South Pacific, the $2-billion Endeavour was built to replace the shuttle Challenger. Challenger was lost on Jan. 28, 1986, in an explosion that killed seven astronauts and stalled America's manned space program for more than 2 1/2 years.
NASA test director Eric Redding told reporters: "I can't think of a launch since the Challenger accident where I've seen a higher level of optimism and pride."
The launch of Endeavour came as Congress is again debating the future of the nation's manned space program, particularly the fate of space station Freedom. The program so far has survived a series of congressional attacks.
"We've got a very ambitious mission ahead of us," shuttle test director Al Sofge said, "and the benefits of flying men in space are going to be obvious here in the next few days."
Endeavour's mission, the 47th shuttle flight since Columbia lifted off in 1981, is of special interest to Californians. The orbiter was built by Rockwell International at its Palmdale plant, and its pilot, Air Force Lt. Col. Kevin P. Chilton, 36, grew up in Westchester.
Other crew members are the mission's commander, Navy Capt. Daniel C. Brandenstein, 49, and Coast Guard Cmdr. Bruce E. Melnick, 42.
The most delicate and potentially dangerous part of the mission will begin about 2 p.m. PDT Sunday, when Hieb and Thuot attempt to pull the stranded satellite into the shuttle cargo bay and then attach it to a new, 23,000-pound solid rocket motor.
The motor, to be fired by Intelsat flight controllers in Washington, is supposed to boost the communications satellite from 220 miles to nearly 23,000 miles above the Earth, where it will stay in a geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic Ocean.