CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Space shuttle Atlantis and a crew of seven thundered into orbit Friday on a mission to furnish the growing international space station.
NASA had worried for days that rain might delay the launch. But the approaching storm slowed down and stayed far enough offshore, allowing the shuttle to rise from its seaside pad into a cloudy sky at 8:45 a.m., right on time.
Atlantis' 11-day voyage is the first shuttle flight in almost four months and the start of what NASA hopes will be a rapid-fire series of missions to the space station.
It was an auspicious start -- this was the first punctual launch for the space shuttle program since John Glenn's return to orbit in October 1998. What's more, Atlantis' climb to orbit was flawless, "which is kind of phenomenal," observed launch manager Bill Gerstenmaier.
"It's a great day," said NASA's new launch director, Mike Leinbach. To his team, he offered this praise: "You all are super."
The space station was soaring over Hungary, 6,600 miles away, when Atlantis took off. The shuttle should catch up early Sunday.
The five U.S. astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts will be the first to float into the space station's new Russian-made control module, Zvezda, which means Star. Its arrival 1 1/2 months ago nearly doubled the size of the station to a crowded three rooms.
Wilcutt and his crew will unload thousands of pounds of supplies from Atlantis and a Russian supply ship that already is docked to the space station.
They also will install the toilet, set up the treadmill and, during a 6 1/2-hour spacewalk on Monday, lay cable.
Until Zvezda's launch in July, more than two years late, space station construction was on hold. Despite the extra time, Zvezda failed to meet NASA safety standards for noise and micrometeoroid protection. Mufflers and shields eventually will be added; in the meantime, everyone inside, Atlantis' crew included, will have earplugs.
Space shuttle Discovery must follow with the first piece of space station truss, or framework, before the first permanent residents can move in at the beginning of November.
Altogether, NASA plans eight shuttle flights to the space station over the next year, counting Atlantis' mission.
"We made use of the delays to get our hardware ready, and now it's time to show that we can deliver on what we said we were going to do," said Robert Cabana, manager of space station international operations.
The high point will be the launch of the U.S. lab Destiny in January. At that point, the international space station will be larger than Russia's Mir. That is also when controllers in Houston will take over day-to-day space station operations from their counterparts in Moscow.
Russia is supposed to supply more cargo ships and more space station components. But because of the country's financial crisis, everything beyond this year is in question.
Atlantis is due back on Sept. 19, although NASA hopes to conserve enough power to extend the mission by one day.
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