Atlantis blasts off for space station rendezvous


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Assigned to rescue the still-under-construction International Space Station, seven astronauts orbiting Earth aboard shuttle Atlantis whisked ever closer last night to a rendezvous with their quarry.

Capping a perfect countdown, Atlantis blasted into space at 6:11 a.m. yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle and its tower of smoke catching the rose-colored rays of dawn.

At that moment, the space station was passing over Turkey, northeast of Ankara near the Black Sea.

Eight minutes later, the crew achieved orbit and Atlantis began a 42-hour chase of the space station, which is slowly falling back to Earth.

Adverse weather scrubbed three previous launch attempts, but conditions were perfect yesterday.

Now the crew will attempt to dock with the space station, an international project that has fallen well behind schedule and is already showing signs of wear.

Its orbit - 207 miles above Earth - is degrading by about 1 1/2 miles a week because increased solar activity is expanding Earth's atmosphere and creating unforeseen drag.

So commander James Halsell will use the shuttle's engines to carry the space station 26 miles higher.

Still a partial skeleton, the station has no propulsion system because a Russian-built service module has been delayed two years.

During the 10-day mission, Atlantis will deliver more than a ton of supplies and replacement parts, including new batteries.

Four of the station's six batteries have failed or are failing, and a crucial battery-charging device is faltering.

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