Engulfed by an unusually thick cloud of white vapor, space shuttle Columbia rose from the launch pad and shot into orbit Friday on a research flight that had been delayed six times.
Eager to get going, the astronauts quickly set up their laboratory for 16 days of round-the-clock scientific work on one of NASA’s longest shuttle missions.
The seven-member crew will set fires, tend potato plants and produce protein and semiconductor crystals in the weightlessness of space, offering a glimpse of what life aboard an international space station might look like.
As the 4.5-million-pound spaceship rose from its seaside pad, billowing white vapor immediately enveloped Columbia, blocking it from view for five heart-stopping seconds.
NASA officials, seemingly unfazed, attributed the steam cloud to the use of two new engines, high humidity and the lighting and camera angles, and said it was no reason for concern.
The astronauts had been trying three weeks for the ride. A record-tying six times, their launch was thwarted by bad weather or equipment trouble. Low clouds and rain almost delayed Friday morning’s liftoff but the sky cleared at the last minute.
Hoping to improve their luck, the astronauts had worn their red, white and blue baseball caps backward on the way to the pad, and launch director James Harrington put on a tie with pictures of Mars and the doomed Mars Observer.
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“It sure helped on Columbia, didn’t it?” Harrington said.
Columbia, NASA’s oldest and recently overhauled shuttle, tied its own 1986 record for shuttle launch postponements with delay No. 6 last weekend.
Altogether, the launch scrubs cost nearly $2 million in spent fuel and overtime, NASA said. They also forced NASA to postpone by 1 1/2 weeks, until Nov. 11, Atlantis’ mission to dock with the Russian space station Mir.