CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Atlantis blasted off on the first shuttle flight in four months Monday, with a side-mounted video camera showing the coastline and the brilliant blue ocean receding fast in the distance as the spaceship climbed toward orbit.
The shuttle rose from its seaside pad under tight post-Sept. 11 security, carrying six astronauts and a 14-ton girder that will be installed on the international space station later this week.
It was the first shuttle launch since early June, a long and frustrating delay caused by cracked fuel lines that grounded the entire fleet. The space agency's boss, Sean O'Keefe, described the successful return to flight as "a big deal for NASA."
The launch also marked the debut of the shuttlecam, a color video camera mounted near the top of Atlantis' external fuel tank. The camera beamed down live images as the shuttle soared out over the Atlantic.
Mission Control told Atlantis' crew that the first two minutes of footage were "nothing short of spectacular." But the camera picked up debris when the shuttle's rocket boosters dropped away, and the rest of the pictures were foggy.
Hurricane Lili added to NASA's woes last week, with the first-ever shutdown of Mission Control and a five-day launch postponement.
Earlier in the day, engineers managed to work around a heater problem in a water-drainage line aboard Atlantis. The trouble cropped up Sunday in one of three lines used to discharge water produced by Atlantis' electricity-producing fuel cells.
Although it was raining and lightning advisories were in effect as the astronauts headed to the pad early in the afternoon, the sky quickly cleared.
"Atlantis is ready for you," launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before liftoff. "The weather is beautiful, and you guys have been in Florida far too long. So we wish you luck."
The shuttlecam showed the billowing plume of rocket exhaust moments after liftoff, and then the coastline and foamy white waves, and then the cape. TV viewers could make out Atlantis separating from its empty fuel tank eight minutes into the flight.
"Those views were just spectacular," said Jim Halsell, a shuttle manager and former shuttle commander. "It's the next best thing to actually being on board, and in some ways you get a view you never had, even if you are on board," he added with a smile.
Fighter jets patrolled the wide no-fly zone around the pad to guard against a terrorist attack. The Air Force chased after six stray planes in the final few hours before liftoff.
During their week at the space station, Atlantis' astronauts will conduct three spacewalks to hook up the $390 million girder. It measures 45 feet long and 15 feet wide and is crammed with wiring, plumbing, three radiators and a railroad cart.
Atlantis should have flown in August but was sidelined by hairline cracks in the pipes that carry hydrogen fuel to the main engines. Similar damage turned up in all four space shuttles, and NASA ordered unprecedented welding repairs.
Then cracks showed up in the Apollo-era platforms needed to haul the shuttles from the hangar to the pad. The bearings had to be replaced before Atlantis could make the four-mile trip.
The space station and its three occupants were soaring 240 miles above the Pacific, west of the Galapagos Islands, when Atlantis finally took off at 3:46 p.m. The shuttle should reach the orbiting outpost on Wednesday with goodie bags of apples, oranges, grapefruit, garlic, onions, hot sauce and a pecan pie.
Astronaut Peggy Whitson, the lone American aboard the space station, is tired of eating out of cans after four months in orbit and put in an order for fresh and spicy food. She has one month remaining in her mission.