Lift-off for 'Atlantis' at last

Nasa shuttle and six crew on mission to resume construction of space station
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The Independent US

After two frustrating weeks of delays, space shuttle Atlantis and its six astronauts blasted off yesterday on a mission to resume construction of the international space station for the first time since the Columbia disaster three and a half years ago. Nasa had made five previous attempts over the past two weeks to get the shuttle off the launch pad.

The spacecraft took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the final day of the shuttle's two-week launch window. The astronauts had strapped themselves into their seats aboard the spacecraft for the second day in a row after Friday's flight was called off less than an hour before launch.

Another delay would have forced Nasa to wait until the Russian Soyuz capsule completes a mission to the space station that is scheduled to begin next week. The shuttle carries one of the heaviest payloads ever taken into space - 17.5 tons of girders will be added to the half-built space station.

The crew will make three space walks during the 11-day mission to install £200m of solar panels that will produce electricity for the orbital outpost. About half of the £53bn space station remains in pieces at Kennedy awaiting transport. Construction has been at a standstill since the shuttle Columbia broke apart on its return home in 2003, killing its seven crew.

Nasa plans to stop flying the space shuttles by 2010 as the United States moves to a new spacecraft to fly crews to the space station and the Moon. The station components were all designed, however, to be launched only on the shuttle, forcing Nasa to operate its three-ship fleet consistently and safely so the station can be finished.

Weather problems plagued Atlantis's first week of launch attempts. A massive bolt of lightning struck the launch pad, prompting a two-day review to check the shuttle and ground equipment. Then the spacecraft was temporarily removed from the seaside pad because of threatening winds from a tropical storm.

Last week's delays were caused by technical problems: an unusual voltage spike in one of the shuttle's electricity generators and the unwelcome return on Friday of a mysterious fuel sensor problem.