Space shuttle Endeavour and a crew of seven blasted into the night sky yesterday, bound for the international space station and the most extreme home makeover project ever attempted by astronauts.
The shuttle rose off its launch pad at 7:55 p.m. EST, right on time, in a brilliant flash of light visible for miles around.
"It's our turn to take home improvement to a new level after 10 years of international space station construction," commander Christopher Ferguson radioed before liftoff.
Ferguson and his crew will double as kitchen and bathroom installers once they arrive at the space station Sunday, hooking up extra cooking and sleeping equipment so the station's crew can expand next year. They will deliver a new refrigerator as well, giving residents much-desired cold drinks for a change.
The nighttime launch was a special treat for onlookers. Only about a quarter of all shuttle flights begin in darkness, and this one made for a spectacular show. The moonrise that preceded the launch was an extra touch; the nearly full moon provided a breathtaking backdrop. The shuttle was visible for more than three minutes, resembling a bright star until it finally vanished.
NASA almost called off the launch at the last minute because a worker didn't fasten a door frame on the pad. Launch controllers decided it would not be a problem.
A worker quickly admitted to the mistake and will not be punished, said launch director Mike Leinbach.
Endeavour and its crew will spend the next 15 or 16 days in orbit. NASA expects to stretch the mission to 16 days, which would put touchdown late in the Thanksgiving weekend.
"Good luck, Godspeed, and have a Happy Thanksgiving on orbit," Leinbach told the astronauts just before liftoff.
The shuttle holds enough irradiated Thanksgiving turkey dinners for everyone, with plenty of space-style candied yams, corn bread stuffing and cranberry-apple dessert.
Filling the payload bay are thousands of pounds of equipment for the space station — enough to allow NASA to double the size of the space station's three-person crew by June.
Among the additions: two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchenette, exercise machine and NASA's revolutionary new recycling system designed to turn urine and condensation into drinking water.
All this will transform the space station into a five-bedroom, two-bath, two-kitchen home capable of housing six residents.
The space station's commander, Mike Fincke, couldn't wait for Endeavour's arrival.
"We're about to get an extreme home makeover," Fincke told Mission Control. "It doesn't get better than this, my friends."
A quick look at the launch pictures showed two pieces of debris trailing behind Endeavour, one at 33 seconds after liftoff and the other around the two-minute mark. It didn't appear that the debris hit the shuttle, Mission Control reported, but analyses will continue for several more days to be certain the shuttle was not damaged.
Earlier in the day, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin called this "a working man's flight."
"This is something that's the size of a small ship, and it needs a lot to keep it running. This is one of the flights where we deliver those things," Griffin told The Associated Press.
The accouterments — as Griffin calls them — also are intended to make life "bearable" for the astronauts spending months there.
Endeavour's five men and two women will help install all the new equipment, with help from the space station's three residents. They almost certainly will pause to mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of the first space station part on Thursday.
The shuttle crew also will take on a lube job at the orbiting outpost, which was soaring 220 miles (354 kilometers) above the South Pacific when Endeavour thundered off.
A massive joint that rotates half of the space station's solar wings toward the sun has been jammed for more than a year; it's clogged with metal grit from grinding parts. The spacewalking astronauts will spend most of their time working on that joint and also add extra grease to keep a twin joint working.
The space agency has just 10 more shuttle flights, including this one, before the fleet is retired in 2010 to make way for a new rocketship capable of flying to the space station and, eventually, carrying astronauts to the moon. An additional shuttle flight or two could be in NASA's future, however, to try to narrow the projected five-year gap between the last shuttle flight and the first manned launch of the new spaceship.
"As you saw today, we arranged to have the moon out there and that's so you could see the shuttle launching," said a beaming Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's space operations. "As it went past the moon, that's the perfect analogy of transition."