Shuttle blasts off with a string and a prayer

Cape Canaveral (AP) - Atlantis roared toward space yesterday with seven astronauts who will fly a satellite on a 12-mile cord in one of the most complicated and exotic missions in shuttle history. The seven-day flight is the 49th shuttle mission and the first to test tethered spacecraft.

Italy's Tethered Satellite will be reeled out from Atlantis on Monday as the shuttle zooms through Earth's magnetic field. The thin cord between the satellite and shuttle is expected to generate 5,000 volts of electricity as a result of the electrically-charged space environment and the speed of the craft. The formation will be travelling at nearly five miles per second, or 17,500 mph, and will be the longest structure flown in space.

NASA says the experiment is safe, though surprises are expected. 'We're being prudent in our risk-taking here. We're taking the risk by even sending it out there, which is our business,' said Jeremiah Pearson, head of NASA's space flight programme.