KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. -- With a roar and a rumble, the shuttle Endeavour blasted off early today on its much anticipated mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
A nearly full moon graced a cloudless sky as the shuttle veered over the Atlantic Ocean, climbing at 1,007 miles an hour within a minute and a half of its 4:27 a.m. liftoff. For several seconds, Endeavour was the brightest star in the Florida night sky. And, then almost as quickly, a mere 7 minutes after launch, the shuttle vanished from view, hurtling beyond the Earth's atmosphere toward its rendezvous with NASA's billion dollar telescope.
"Oh what a beautiful sunrise," said shuttle commander Dick Covey as Endeavour soared into space.
"The second time is magic," said Edward J. Weiler, the Hubble program scientist at NASA headquarters, referring to NASA's second attempt to launch Endeavour on this complex 11-day mission. Yesterday's launch was canceled because of brisk winds.
This morning's liftoff was "picture perfect," said Loren Shriver, technical assistant to the director of space shuttle operations. With the shuttle in orbit, control of the 11-day mission reverts to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"This looks like a good morning to go flying," shuttle launch director Robert B. Sieck told the Endeavour crew just before liftoff.
The mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's flawed vision and fortify its mechanical health is the most ambitious NASA project since the Apollo moon landings.
The scientific capabilities of the $1.6 billion observatory -- as well as the reputation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- are riding on the success of Endeavour crew members, who will attempt an unprecedented five space walks to fix Hubble.
On the third day of the mission, the shuttle is scheduled to rendezvous with the telescope, which is the size of a city bus and is orbiting at 17,000 miles an hour some 377 miles above Earth. The crew will use Endeavour's mechanical arm to pull Hubble into the shuttle bay, where it will be secured for repairs. Then the crew's work will begin.
For Hubble project scientist David Leckrone, the rendezvous can't come soon enough.
Dr. Leckrone, 51, of Columbia, has worked on the Hubble project for 17 years. He was among four Goddard scientists at Kennedy for the launch.
The first servicing mission took on greater urgency when NASA discovered two months after the April 1990 deployment of Hubble that the telescope's 94.5-inch primary mirror was the wrong shape.
Within minutes of today's picture-perfect launch, the champagne corks were popping at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
"The only thing I can think of that gives me an equivalent sensation was when my children were born," said Mario Livio, a theoretical astrophysicist who studies Hubble's data on black holes, neutron stars and exploding stars.
About 75 scientists, engineers, technicians and family members arrived by 4 a.m. to watch the countdown and liftoff on a wide-screen TV in the auditorium of the institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus.
Among them, keeping busy on the floor with a coloring book, was Connor O'Dea, 5 1/2 , the son of astronomer Stefi Baum. Connor may be young, but he knows about space ships and aliens and problems like the high winds that scrubbed yesterday's launch attempt.
This time, he observed just prior to launch, "the wind's good, and there are not so many clouds in the sky."
As the countdown progressed, institute staffers greeted each milestone with applause, and endured each passing minute with deep sighs and nervous drumming on the seat in front.
At the first sparks of ignition from the shuttle's engines, someone shouted, "Yes!" Thunderous cheers and applause followed as Endeavour leaped from its shackles on launch pad 39B.
There was silence again as the shuttle rocketed through the point where the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all aboard and delaying the space telescope's launch by three years.
When the shuttle's solid-fuel booster rockets separated, the tension lifted again, and the hall filled with cheers and applause.
"This particular [mission] is a really important one for all of us," Dr. Livio said. If successful, the repairs will bring the space
telescope to the absolute limits of its design specifications, enabling it to provide answers to some of astronomy's biggest questions, including the origins, age and fate of the universe.
But Dr. Livio stressed that Hubble has not been floating crippled through space for the past three years. The ingenuity of its
scientists and engineers has allowed them to work around its mirror flaw and make important discoveries, and strides toward answering the really big questions.
"It has produced the most fantastic data we have ever made in astronomy," he said, "far exceeding that we can get from earthbound telescopes."
Hubble was designed to be serviced in space. It is equipped with 225 feet of handrails and 31 foot restraint sockets.
Endeavour astronauts, working in teams of two, plan to install new optics that use mirrors -- some no bigger than a dime -- to correct Hubble's blurry vision.
The success of the mission depends on the number of tasks the crew accomplishes while in space. At a minimum, NASA hopes to correct Hubble's focusing problem for at least one of its astronomical instruments, and replace at least one broken gyroscope, the equipment that fixes the telescope on its target.
With a successful launch under their belt, the Endeavour crew would have a busy week ahead if all goes as planned. On the fourth day of the mission, Sunday, the space walks begin. Over four days, the astronauts expect to replace:
* Two solar panels, which now vibrate each time the spacecraft moves from sunlight to shadow, affecting its aim.
* Two failed gyroscopes to restore the redundancy of the telescope's aiming system.
* The Wide Field/Planetary Camera with an improved model containing a small mirror designed to cancel the flaw in the telescope's 94-inch primary mirror.
* The High Speed Photometer with COSTAR, a system of adjustable mirrors -- some no bigger than a dime -- designed to cancel the focusing flaw for three other instruments on board the space telescope.
* A malfunctioning magnetometer, which measures the telescope's position relative to the Earth's magnetic field.
* One of two electronic units that control the position of the solar panels, pointing them at the sun.