Discovery and its multi-national crew of seven astronauts blasted off this morning from the Kennedy Space Center, lighting up the early morning skies as they sped to orbit on the first shuttle mission of the year for the first shuttle docking to the International Space Station.
Commander Kent Rominger, Pilot Rick Husband and Mission Specialists Tammy Jernigan, Ellen Ochoa, Dan Barry, Julie Payette and Valery Tokarev lifted off at 5:50 a.m. Central time following a flawless countdown. Less than nine minutes later, they reached orbit to begin their pursuit of the station.
At the time of launch, the ISS's two modules, Zarya and Unity, were traveling due east of the outer banks of the Carolinas northwest of Bermuda at an altitude of about 210 nautical miles. Discovery will catch up to the ISS late tomorrow night for the first docking of a Shuttle to the new orbital outpost. That will mark the start of six days of docked activities in which the astronauts plan to transfer almost two tons of supplies to the station and conduct a spacewalk to continue outfitting the fledgling facility.
Once on orbit, the astronauts began to activate shuttle systems and conducted early work in advance of their rendezvous with the ISS, which will begin early Friday evening. Having launched late in their workday, the astronauts are scheduled to begin an eight hour sleep period at 10:50 a.m. Central time. They will be awakened this evening about 6:50 p.m. Central time for the start of their second day in space - a day which will be highlighted by ongoing preparations for both the docking of Discovery to the station Friday night and the scheduled spacewalk by Jernigan and Barry late Saturday night.
Discovery is orbiting at altitude of about 170 nautical miles, with all of its systems functioning in good shape.
The next STS-96 mission status report will be issued about 8 p.m. Central time, or as events warrant.
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