Space Shuttle Astronauts Get to Work After Successful Night Launch

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery woke up to The Beatles on Sunday, their first morning in space, where the first order of business will be to make sure their ship wasn't damaged during launch.

The crew lit up the sky late Saturday with a fiery ascent that practically turned night into day in the first nighttime launch in four years. Then it was on to the international space station to rewire the orbital outpost.

The astronauts began their day to the mellow tunes of "Here Comes the Sun."

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"Good morning, Discovery. We especially want to thank you for the burst of sunshine you brought into our lives last night. It was an awesome launch," Shannon Lucid from Mission Control radioed up to the crew.

"It was pretty great for all of us, too," Commander Mark Polansky responded.

Astronauts will spend the day inspecting the shuttle for potentially critical heat shield damage from debris falling off the external tank during lift off, the problem that doomed the shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Nicholas Patrick, one of the five astronauts experiencing zero gravity for the first time, will use the shuttle's 50-foot robotic arm and similarly long boom with sensors and a camera to inspect the ship. The survey was to start at 3:12 p.m.

Discovery is to dock with the space station Monday to begin the intricate work. Three complicated spacewalks are planned to rewire the space station from a temporary to a permanent power source.

NASA had to beat the odds to get off the launch pad Saturday. After only a 30 percent chance of good weather earlier in the day and a two-hour delay in fueling, Discovery streaked through a moonless sky at 8:47 p.m. EST.

"It just all came together perfectly," launch director Mike Leinbach said.

The mood was also upbeat aboard Discovery.

"I think we have five people who just haven't stopped smiling yet," Polansky said after the shuttle reached space.

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During its 12-day mission, Discovery's crew will also deliver an $11 million addition to the space lab and bring home one of the space station's three crew members, German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency. American astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams will replace him, staying for six months.

The two veterans aboard the shuttle are Polansky and Robert Curbeam, who will spacewalk three times. The others are pilot William Oefelein, and mission specialists Patrick, Williams, Joan Higginbotham and the European Space Agency's Christer Fuglesang, who was the first Swede in space.

Fuglesang carried some unusual food into orbit: several cans of moose sausage and moose pate.

The mission is one leg of a three-year race to finish construction on the space station before shuttles are retired in 2010. After Discovery's mission, 13 more shuttle flights are needed to complete the lab.

The launch was the first at night since Endeavour's flight in November 2002 and only the 29th in darkness of NASA's 117 total shuttle launches.

"What you've seen tonight is the successful accomplishment of the most challenging, demanding, technically state-of-the-art, difficult thing that this nation or any nation can do," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.

Mission Control in Houston told Discovery's crew that there were no initial reports of any serious problems and that the shuttle was "in great shape."

NASA had required daylight launches for three flights after the Columbia accident so that clear images could be taken of the external fuel tank. Foam broke off Columbia's tank at liftoff and struck the spacecraft's wing, leading to the disaster that killed seven astronauts.

Saturday's launch was only the fourth since the Columbia disaster in 2003 and the third of the year. It also was the last scheduled liftoff from pad 39B, which will be modified for new rockets that will take astronauts back to the moon in 2020.

"It's kind of the end of an era," Leinbach said.

Waiting at the space station for his visitors to arrive Monday, U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria played celebratory music for Discovery, "Song 2" by Blur, highlighting the lyrics: "Woo hoo! Woo hoo!"

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