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Atlantis Blasts Off With Seconds to Spare

April 09, 2002|From Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Atlantis thundered into orbit Monday with a new part for the international space station, a 44-foot section of latticework that is equipped with a rail car and track.

Atlantis and its crew soared into a clear sky at 4:44 p.m. local time, four days late because of a leaky fuel line on the launch pad that had to be repaired. A last-minute computer problem in the firing room almost forced another delay, but controllers quickly reloaded the system software and launched Atlantis with just 11 seconds to spare in its five-minute launch window.

"You spent a few extra days in Florida, but it's time for you guys to take a ride," launch director Mike Leinbach told the seven astronauts. "So we wish you luck."

"We'll see you back here in about 11 days," commander Michael Bloomfield replied.

Security at the launch site was tight, as it has been since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with fighter jets and attack helicopters on the lookout for intruders in no-fly and no-sail zones. Three small planes violated the airspace and were escorted down by F-15s; a ship also was chased away.

A new NASA security policy kept the astronauts' whereabouts under wraps until they arrived at the pad.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe congratulated controllers for beating the end of the five-minute launch window.

"You had 11 seconds to spare. Another day at your office, right? No big deal," he joked.

Astronaut Jerry Ross made history at liftoff, becoming the first person to rocket away from Earth seven times.

When the 54-year-old retired Air Force colonel ventures outside this weekend with Lee Morin, a 49-year-old Navy doctor, the two will become the first pair of grandfathers to take a spacewalk. Their nickname: the Silver Team.

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