Space shuttle Columbia zoomed into orbit with an unprecedented 180-degree flip Wednesday, beginning its two-week science mission right on the mark.
“Have an international Thanksgiving, and may the roll go your way,” a launch controller told the U.S., Japanese and Ukrainian crew of six moments before the midafternoon liftoff.
It was the sixth time this year that NASA sent up a shuttle at the exact moment on the exact day as planned.
“You can’t end the year on a better note,” launch director Jim Harrington gushed.
The first experiment of the 16-day flight occurred just six minutes after liftoff.
In a space shuttle first, Columbia flipped while zooming toward orbit at more than 8,300 mph, or 13 times the speed of sound. The ship twisted to the left at the command of on-board computers and, for 40 seconds, kept turning until it had rolled the full 180 degrees.
“It was really pretty smooth,” commander Kevin Kregel reported hours later as he beamed down video views of the cockpit during launch.
The flip was designed to put the shuttle in radio contact with communication satellites, necessary because of the impending shutdown of NASA’s Bermuda tracking station to save money. That switch took less than 15 seconds, during which time there was no contact between Columbia and Mission Control as expected, said launch manager Donald McMonagle.
The astronauts were supposed to tackle their first big job - releasing a solar observatory - on Thursday afternoon. But Mission Control was considering delaying the release until Friday because of problems with another spacecraft.
A 2-year-old solar observatory called Soho shut itself down Wednesday because of an unexplained spike in voltage, and engineers estimated it would take 24 hours to bring it back to normal. Soho and the Spartan satellite aboard Columbia are supposed to make simultaneous observations of the sun during the two days that Spartan flies free of the shuttle.
Scientists can achieve all their objectives even if Spartan is set loose later than planned, provided Soho is working, NASA said.
During Columbia’s flight, due to end Dec. 5, the astronauts also will conduct a practice spacewalk that was canceled last year because of a stuck hatch, and perform $56 million worth of plant, crystal, metal and other science experiments.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration encountered several minor problems during the countdown, including a broken seal on the crew hatch that needed to be replaced at the last minute. But all the snags were resolved by launch time, and the clouds over Kennedy Space Center were not as thick as forecasters had feared.
Among those attending the midafternoon launch was Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who cheered on Columbia crewman Leonid Kadenyuk, the first from his country to fly on a U.S. spacecraft. It was the first time the former aerospace industry executive viewed a launch out in the open; he’d always been peering through a periscope from an underground chamber.
“When I felt the soil trembling, I immediately had a thought about the mightiness of the United States,” the Ukrainian president said.
Besides a Ukrainian, the crew includes a Japanese astronaut who will become the first person from his country to walk in space, and the first Indian-born woman in space.
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