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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Discovery and seven astronauts rocketed into orbit Monday on one of NASA's final stockpiling missions to the International Space Station, its takeoff flames bringing an early dawn to the coast with this last scheduled shuttle launch in darkness.
The liftoff, less than an hour before sunrise, helped clinch a record for the most women in space at the same time.
Three women are aboard Discovery, and another already is at the space station, making for an unprecedented foursome. The shuttle should arrive at the orbiting outpost Wednesday.
In a rare treat, the space station passed over the launch site 15 minutes before Discovery blasted off and was easily visible, resembling a big, brilliant star in the clear morning sky with the moon as a dramatic backdrop. Spectators were mightily impressed, and there was a chorus of "Oooooh." By launch time, the outpost had traveled almost all the way across the Atlantic.
"It's time for you to rise to orbit. Good luck and Godspeed," launch director Pete Nickolenko told the astronauts right before liftoff.
"Let's do it!" replied commander Alan Poindexter.
Discovery could be seen with the naked eye for seven minutes as it shot upward, adding to the show. And almost as an encore, the exhaust plumes fanned out in spirals across the sky, turning pale shades of rose, peach and gold in the glinting sunlight.
The six space station residents gathered around the dinner table to watch the launch on a laptop computer. "We are absolutely delighted to have our friendly comrades joining us here in a couple of days," said spaceman Timothy Creamer.
"Stand by for a knock on the door," Mission Control radioed.
Japan celebrated its own space feat with Discovery's liftoff. Two of its astronauts were circling Earth at the same time, one on the shuttle and the other on the station. More than 300 Japanese journalists and space program officials crowded the launch site; the roads leading to the Kennedy Space Center also were jammed with Easter vacationers and spring breakers eager to see one of the few remaining shuttle flights.
Only three shuttle missions remain after this one. NASA intends to retire its fleet by the end of September, but is unsure what will follow for human spaceflight. President Barack Obama will visit the area April 15, while Discovery is still in orbit, to fill in some of the blanks.
NASA's moon exploration program, Constellation, already has been canceled by Obama.
Poindexter and his crew will spend nine days at the space station, replenishing supplies. The astronauts will install a fresh ammonia tank for the cooling system - a cumbersome job requiring three spacewalks. They also will drop off science experiments as well as an extra sleeping compartment, a darkroom to improve picture-taking from the lab's high-quality window, and other equipment totaling thousands of pounds.
All these supplies are needed to keep the space station running long after NASA's three remaining shuttles stop flying. NASA will rely on other countries' vessels to deliver crews and supplies, but none are as big and roomy as the shuttle.
The space station will continue operating until 2020 under the Obama plan. The idea is for commercial rocket companies to eventually provide ferry service for astronauts. Right now, NASA is paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. That's how U.S. astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson got to the space station Sunday, two days after being launched from Kazakhstan.
Discovery's flight was the 35th in the shuttle program to begin in darkness and, barring unforeseen problems, the last. The mission was delayed more than two weeks because of this winter's unusually cold weather. So instead of an afternoon launch, the shuttle took off before sunrise, pushing all the action into the graveyard shift.
The mission will last nearly two weeks and coincide with the 29th anniversary of the first shuttle flight on April 12.
Once combined, the shuttle and station crews will number 13: eight Americans, three Russians and two Japanese.
Most everything went smoothly in Monday morning's countdown. A half-hour before liftoff, a failure was noted in the Air Force system for sending self-destruct signals to the shuttle in case it strays off course. A backup line was working fine, though, and the launch occurred at 6:21 a.m., right on time.