KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The shuttle Discovery blasted its way into orbit on Saturday through wispy clouds against blue skies on its way to deliver a bus-size laboratory to the International Space Station.
The column of smoke, bright white against the brilliant day, cast a shadow to the east as the shuttle ascended, and the sound waves made the air shudder.
A first look at the video from the ascending craft showed about five pieces of insulating foam falling off the shuttle’s external fuel tank, said William Gerstenmaier, the space agency’s associate administrator for space operations, at a news conference an hour after launching. But he said that none of the shedding was a source of worry, because it all occurred after the time during the ascent when falling foam presents a threat to the delicate heat shielding of the shuttle. Even those pieces that struck the shuttle appeared to bounce off harmlessly, Mr. Gerstenmaier said. “We don’t think that’s a big deal for us,” he said. The shuttle will be closely inspected as it approaches the space station and after docking, he said.
In a business in which delays are standard operating procedure, both the weather and the technical gremlins that often bedevil launching attempts caused no problems.
“It’s a gorgeous day to launch,” said Michael Leinbach, the launching director, giving approval for Discovery’s ride.
Cmdr. Mark E. Kelly of the Navy, who is the shuttle commander, replied, “Stand by for the greatest show on Earth.”
The laboratory, the $1 billion Kibo module, is the largest and the second part of three shuttle payloads that will bring the full Kibo assembly up to the station. It will be the largest “room” on the station, and will eventually include an exposed area, like a back porch, where some experiments will be exposed to the harsh vacuum and temperature extremes of space.
The pilot for the mission, the 123rd in the history of the shuttle program, is Cmdr. Kenneth T. Ham, also of the Navy. Commander Kelly is making his third trip to space; only one other member of the crew, Michael E. Fossum, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, has been to space. He will be on his second mission.
The other crew members are Karen L. Nyberg, Col. Ronald J. Garan Jr. of the Air Force and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The seventh member of the crew, Gregory E. Chamitoff, will be staying aboard the station to begin a six-month rotation there, and will replace Garrett E. Reisman, who has been aboard the station since March.
Discovery’s crew members will be showing up with a last-minute addition to their cargo: replacement parts for a broken toilet aboard the station. The toilet has separate systems for dealing with solid and liquid waste. The unit that stopped working last week was supposed to direct urine flow and separate the liquid from air for storage. Two replacement units that were on board the station have also failed.
Julie Payette, a Canadian astronaut, said that despite the many toilet jokes that had been made in the news media over the past week, “We actually take this extremely seriously. In our book, the hygiene cabinet — the toilet — is perhaps one of the most important systems on any spacecraft.” It should go without saying, Ms. Payette said, that “we’re humans.”
“We generate waste,” she continued. “We need a way to dispose of it.”
But she expressed confidence the Russians would be able to repair the system, because Russian engineering tends to be robust and repairable. “They have really good engineers,” she said.
The mission includes three spacewalks to help install Kibo, perform station maintenance and to test techniques for cleaning a malfunctioning rotary joint that is a critical part of the station’s power supply.
That joint, 10 feet in diameter, rotates one of the station’s enormous solar arrays so that it faces the Sun during each orbit. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration idled the joint last year, when it was found to have been damaged by metal shavings that fouled its inner workings and were being ground in by the operation of the joint.
Mr. Gerstenmaier said at the news conference that the station would probably be able to operate into next year before the problems limited the use of the growing station and the joint would have to be repaired.
At the news conference, Michael D. Griffin, NASA’s administrator, beamed as he talked about a week in which NASA not only launched a shuttle crew but also landed a robotic craft, Phoenix, on Mars. He joked, “It’s so great that not even having to do a press conference — two press conferences in a week — can ruin it.” But, he added: “It is not easy. We could talk until 6 a.m. tomorrow and I wouldn’t touch all the details that would demonstrate how hard it is. And yet these teams make it look easy.”