CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Atlantis thundered into orbit Saturday with no obvious damage from debris to worry NASA or the six-member crew as they prepared to resume construction of the international space station for the first time since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
After two weeks of delays due to storms and technical glitches, Atlantis rose from its seaside pad through a partly cloudy sky at 11:15 a.m. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin declared the launch "majestic."
"It was worth the wait and we're ready to get to work," said Atlantis commander Brent Jett.
Jett and his crew now face one of the most challenging construction tasks in space history. But they also have trained for the mission, initially scheduled for 2003, longer than any crew in the past.
As they headed into space Saturday, more than 100 cameras zoomed in for any signs of foam breaking off its external fuel tank, the problem that doomed Columbia.
Early reviews of the video found no glaring damage. NASA's cameras spotted three possible hits — two small foam streams and one ice chunk — but they came so late that the debris wasn't moving fast enough to do much damage, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.
"We are looking at nits — nothing of any remote consequence," Hale said. "Not only am I not alarmed, I'm really at ease after looking through this video."
The first and most noticeable hit was just four minutes after launch when a dribble of small foam particles hit Atlantis' right belly, but it didn't appear to cause any damage, Hale said.
A minute and a half later, more foam hit the shuttle's right side, but again with no evident damage, Hale said. And at nearly nine minutes, a small ice chunk hit near the nose gear landing door but with no apparent harm, he said.
Still, he stressed that those reviews were preliminary. NASA will get a better look early Sunday when Atlantis' crew uses the shuttle's robotic arm to take pictures of the heat shield and then later when it reaches the space station.
In 2003, Columbia's heat shield was damaged by flyaway foam from its external fuel tank during liftoff, allowing fiery gases to penetrate its wing and tear the shuttle apart as it later re-entered the atmosphere. Since then, NASA has struggled to find ways to prevent the hard foam from breaking away.
Saturday, NASA mostly celebrated shaking off frustration.
"Not everything in the count leading up to this day was easy," Griffin said. "We had to dodge tropical storms, lightning strikes and things like that."
There was a slight problem when a freon coolant system didn't work properly during ascent, but NASA didn't view it as a major concern. The fuel cells that forced launch delays earlier in the week were working as expected, NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said.
"Great work!" astronaut Jeff Williams said minutes after the launch from the space station 220 miles above Earth.
Launch director Mike Leinbach called the liftoff "really, really clean."
Atlantis carried one of the heaviest payloads ever launched into space — a 17 1/2 ton truss section that will be added to the half-built space station. It includes two solar arrays that will produce electricity for the orbiting outpost. Atlantis' weight was so much that it only had a crew of six, instead of the usual seven astronauts.
The astronauts will make three spacewalks during the 11-day flight to install the $372 million addition.
"In terms of spacewalk tasks, clearly these are the most complicated spacewalk and assembly tasks that ever have been done before," Hale said.
The space agency plans 14 more shuttle flights besides the Atlantis mission to complete the space station before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010 and NASA turns its attention to flying to the moon and Mars.
The Atlantis launch was a long time coming. The crew had trained for a record 4 1/2 years because of the delay due to Columbia and was ready to launch in August, but then four launch attempts were scrubbed in two weeks: first a lightning bolt hit the launch pad, then Tropical Storm Ernesto threatened Florida, then a problem surfaced with the shuttle's electrical system, followed by a faulty fuel gauge.
On Friday, the astronauts were already strapped in when NASA scrubbed less than an hour before launch time because a sensor in the hydrogen fuel tank gave an abnormal reading. That delay cost NASA $616,000.
If the shuttle didn't get off the ground this week, NASA would have had to wait until late September or even late October to try again.
Russia plan to send a Soyuz capsule to the space station on Sept. 18 with two new crew members for the space station and Anousheh Ansari, a Texas entrepreneur who is to become the first female space tourist.
Aboard Atlantis, in addition to Jett, are pilot Chris Ferguson and mission specialists Joe Tanner, Dan Burbank, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency. Before going to sleep Saturday, Jett happily noted to mission control that Ferguson and Stefanyshyn-Piper "are not rookies any more."