Shuttle Blasts Off for Alpha

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After nearly a week of delays, space shuttle Endeavour blasted off under heavy protection Wednesday on a flight to deliver a new crew to the international space station.

The shuttle rose from its seaside pad shortly before sunset, carrying seven astronauts and a load of station supplies. It was NASA's first mission since the Sept. 11 attacks and received more security than any other space shot.

Launch director Mike Leinbach apologized to the astronauts for keeping them in town a few extra days. "Have a great flight," he said right before liftoff.

Replied shuttle commander Dominic Gorie: "We're all aware that for over 200 years and certainly over the last two months, freedom rings loud and clear across this country. But right here and right now, it's time to let freedom roar. Let's light them up!"

Endeavour had been poised for liftoff since last Thursday. A jammed docking mechanism at the space station forced two delays. Once that was fixed, bad weather interfered at the last minute with a launch attempt on Tuesday. NASA fretted over clouds and gusty wind again on Wednesday, but the conditions improved and were deemed acceptable for the 5:19 p.m. launch.

Fighter jets and helicopters were on patrol throughout the countdown, as well as military personnel in camouflage. A no-fly zone was established 35 miles around the launch pad, and boats were banned within three miles of shore.

Journalists could not be present for the astronauts' departure for the launch pad. Even space center employees were kept a few hundred feet away behind a barricade. The crew was escorted by guards with automatic rifles; a Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun was parked along the road to the pad.

The space station and its crew were soaring over the Arabian Sea when Endeavour took off. The shuttle's contrail was bathed in the gold and peach light of the setting sun.

The three men awaiting Endeavour's arrival — American commander Frank Culbertson and Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin — logged their 117th day in space Wednesday. They moved into the space station last August.

Their replacements, two Americans and one Russian, will live aboard the orbiting outpost until May.

The shuttle was also carrying New York City police and fire regalia, including badges and patches, and thousands of small American flags. The flags will be distributed after Endeavour's 11-day flight to families of those killed on Sept. 11 and some of those who survived the attacks.

Endeavour is expected to dock at the space station on Friday and return to its Florida base on Dec. 16.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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