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Atlantis heads for space at last

A 'majestic' launch

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NASA managed to get Shuttle off the ground yesterday, and in the nick of time too. Any later and they'd have had to postpone the launch to avoid messing up the Russians' schedule for visiting the International Space Station.

And while debris did fall from the craft during the launch, engineers who reviewed the launch footage say no damage was done. Wayne Hale, the Shuttle program boss, said the debris was "nothing of any remote consequence".

Now that the Atlantis is aloft, the crew will be getting ready to continue the construction of the International Space Station (ISS).

The team is set to install the part of the stations's backbone that carries four massive solar panel arrays. The panels are mounted on a rotating joint so that they can track the sun, and will double the station's ability to generate power from solar photons.

NASA has another 15 construction missions planned. It has to fit them all in before 2010, when the Shuttle fleet is due to be retired.

This, along with the looming, but averted, scheduling conflict with the Russians, had put the Shuttle team under huge pressure to launch on time. The launch was put back several times: first it was struck by lightning, then menaced by an almost-hurricane. Next one of its batteries looked a bit iffy, and earlier this week it had a sensor malfunction.

Finally, however, things went well. NASA's head honcho Michael Griffin told reporters: "What you saw today is a flawless count, a majestic launch." ®

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