For what may be the final time, a space shuttle lit up the predawn Florida sky this morning, making a spectacular climb into orbit to meet up with the international space station.
Shuttle Discovery lifted off on time at 6:21 a.m., leaving just three flights on NASA's manifest before the fleet is retired – and none of them are expected to be nighttime launches.
Even this flight was not supposed to be an overnight event, but Florida's cold weather earlier this year delayed the mission, pushing the launch window earlier in the day. The timing made for a brilliant show – the shuttle's boosters ignited like two bright suns, then the orbiter climbed from darkness into sunlight as it neared orbit.
"That sure was a spectacular launch," Mission Management Team Director Mike Moses observed with a smile at the post-launch press conference.
The space station itself even made a cameo appearance – crossing the sky and passing directly in front of the moon just a few minutes before launch.
Now, Discovery's seven astronauts can focus on the 13-day mission, during which they'll deliver more than eight tons of supplies and experiments, and take three spacewalks as they replace an ammonia tank.
The primary goal of these last few missions is to finish building and equipping the space station. After the shuttles are retired, NASA will have to rely on smaller Russian capsules to ferry astronauts and equipment to the orbiting lab.
When Discovery docks at the station early Wednesday, it will make for a crowd in orbit. Three astronauts arrived at the station aboard a Soyuz capsule over the weekend to join the three already there, meaning the arriving shuttle will temporarily boost the station's compliment to 13 – a number that will include two Japanese astronauts and a former high school science teacher.
Before this mission is complete, NASA and the country may know more about the president's vision for the future of the space agency. President Barack Obama's proposed budget for next year would eliminate funding for the rocket and capsule system that NASA planned as replacements for the shuttles. Instead, the White House hopes to stimulate private industry development of spacecraft and other systems.
The plan is not a popular one among many members of Congress, and it's an especially big concern for the thousands of Florida space industry workers who could lose their jobs.
"Everybody is up in arms; they don't know what to do. He promised that he'd take care of them, and then he turned around and did what he did," complained Titusville resident Shelley Crowell.
The president plans to visit the Space Coast on April 15 to lay out his position, though few details about the actual event have been released.
"I really have no ideas," NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier offered with a shrug, when asked about the president's visit. "I've not been consulted and I really don't know what he might say."
Assuming nothing changes, NASA plans to finish out the shuttle flights by September.