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Space Shuttle Finally Takes Off

Space shuttle Endeavour streaked into orbit Saturday night after weeks of delay, carrying up a new set of residents and another massive building block for the international space station.

NASA had feared storms in Spain might postpone the flight for the second day in a row. But in the end, the rain held off at one of the two overseas emergency landing strips and managers cleared Endeavour and its seven astronauts for takeoff.

"Looks like we've got a good vehicle and good weather tonight for you," said launch director Mike Leinbach. "Have a great flight. I hope you have a good turkey dinner packed for Thanksgiving."

"From the bridge of Endeavour, we're ready to set thundering sail," replied commander James Wetherbee.

Endeavour roared to life and lit up the clear night sky for miles around. The rocketship was visible for seven minutes, resembling a bright star as it arced over the ocean.

The space station and its three residents, on board since June, were soaring over Austria when Endeavour blasted off at 7:49 p.m. to come get them.

"Excellent!" astronaut Peggy Whitson said from the space station, where Endeavour is due to arrive on Monday.

The delays were starting to pile up for NASA's latest delivery trip to the space station, in need of a fresh crew, another new girder and spare parts for a balky air-cleanser.

Endeavour should have flown in October, but was grounded until November because of cracked fuel lines found throughout the shuttle fleet. Then during a Nov. 11 launch attempt, oxygen leaked from a cracked hose in the astronauts' supply line. While trying to fix that, workers damaged the shuttle's robot arm; fortunately, no repairs were needed.

And then the weather interfered.

Both Spanish air bases were socked in Friday night by the same storm system that sank an oil tanker earlier in the week. Only one had to be available for use by Endeavour in the rare event of engine failure or some other emergency during liftoff.

Kennedy Space Center's director, Roy Bridges, congratulated the launch team for getting the job done safely. The only problem during liftoff was a valve believed to be stuck open in Endeavour's right orbital-maneuvering engine.

"You have a lot more to be thankful for on Thanksgiving," Bridges told employees.

Added Leinbach: "Well, I tell you, this one feels good."

Endeavour is loaded with a $390 million space station girder almost identical to one launched last month. Two crew members -- including the first American Indian ever launched into space, John Herrington -- will hook it up during three spacewalks this week.

Nearly 200 members of Herrington's tribe, the Chickasaw Nation, traveled by bus from Ada, Okla., to Cape Canaveral for his first launch attempt. But they could not return for Try No. 2 and held a ceremony back home Friday night. By Saturday night, they gave up on the festivities and proudly watched the liftoff on TV.

Endeavour is the ride home for Whitson and Russian cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev. They marked their 171st day in orbit Saturday. By the time the shuttle returns to Earth on Dec. 4, they will have spent 182 days aloft.

They will be replaced by Americans Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian Nikolai Budarin, who will stay for at least four months.

Whitson has mixed feelings about leaving. The 42-year-old biochemist spent her whole adult life aiming to become an astronaut. Her goal was a long spaceflight.

Even though she's enjoyed working on the space station, Whitson has expressed a growing weariness for the canned food and just-add-water meals. She stockpiled rehydrated shrimp cocktails before she left Earth on June 5, but her taste changed in space and she passed off the shrimp to her crewmates.