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Discovery finally off to space

SEVEN astronauts raced to the international space station aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Sunday after a successful launch that was delayed five times and caused the mission to be shortened by a day.

The delays forced a spacewalk to be axed, but mission managers said they would still be able to complete 80 to 90 percent of the tasks they had planned. The canceled spacewalk chores will be tackled by the space station crew.

"It's not a major setback to us," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, after Sunday evening's launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. "We're able to accomplish everything we want."

That includes dropping off the space station's newest crew member: Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is replacing US astronaut Sandra Magnus.

Other tasks during the 13-day mission include installing the station's last pair of solar wings so the orbiting outpost can operate at full power.

The crew will also deliver supplies and hardware, most notably replacing a broken machine that turns urine into drinking water, and iodine solution and a flusher to get rid of bacteria that is lurking in the water dispenser.

Mission managers were dazzled by the beauty of the sunset launch, which left a miles-long plume trail that glowed gold and pink from the day's last sunlight. Launch controllers could see the shuttle for seven minutes, until it reached somewhere off the New York or New Jersey coast.

"For the folks who watched this launch on TV, I really wish you could have been here in Florida," launch director Mike Leinbach said. "I've seen a lot of launches ... and this was the most visually beautiful launch I've ever seen. It was just spectacular."


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