CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Space shuttle Atlantis streaked into orbit Thursday carrying a $164 million front door for the international space station.
Atlantis rose from its seaside pad at 5:04 a.m., illuminating the sky for miles around more than an hour before sunrise. The shuttle and its crew of five were a month late in leaving because of problems on the space station.
Space station Alpha and its three residents were soaring high above the Indian Ocean when Atlantis thundered away. Within minutes, they were informed of the launch and told to expect their first visitors in more than two months on Friday night.
``Congratulations you guys! You're going to get company,'' Mission Control told the two Americans and one Russian aboard Alpha.
NASA had worried that stormy weather might interfere with the launch, but the rain stayed away and launch managers gave shuttle commander Steven Lindsey and his crew the go-ahead to fly.
``Looks like the vehicle and the weather have come together, so we wish you luck,'' launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts shortly before liftoff. He later told reporters: ``It doesn't hurt to have a little good luck at the end, and that's what we got.''
The front door for spacewalkers _ essentially a pressure chamber called an air lock _ should have been delivered to the space station in June. But the newly installed, 58-foot space station robot arm had joint problems that had to be fixed first.
The extra-long arm is needed to attach the 6 1/2-ton air lock to the space station and install four large high-pressure gas tanks also being carried up by Atlantis. Three spacewalks are planned during the 11-day mission to hook everything up, beginning Saturday night.
The American-made air lock will provide more spacewalking freedom for space station residents.
Currently, American astronauts on the space station have to wear Russian spacesuits during spacewalks and exit via the Russian side of the outpost, unless the shuttle is present. American spacesuits are not compatible with the Russian systems.
The new air lock will enable astronauts to use U.S. spacesuits at any time; it has two rooms, one for changing in and out of suits and the other for decompressing and floating into the vacuum of space.
Such autonomy is essential if NASA hopes to finish building space station Alpha in the next five to six years. Eighty-two more spacewalks are planned on the U.S. side alone; 20 have been conducted so far.
Atlantis' liftoff coincided with the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Russian core of the space station.
NASA has launched space shuttles to the space station seven times in the past year, adding framework, solar wings, a laboratory and the robot arm.
``It's just amazing that all of this has been done in a very short period of time,'' said David Bethay, a space station operations director for Boeing, the prime contractor.
Six congressmen witnessed Thursday's launch, including the brother-in-law of astronaut Michael Gernhardt, Rep. Christopher Cox of California.
Atlantis had one less emergency landing site than usual Thursday.
For security reasons, NASA dropped a Moroccan air base from its list of overseas emergency landing sites for this mission. Two other locales, both in Spain, were available in case Atlantis had encountered engine failures or other major problems as it headed to orbit.
Shuttle manager James Halsell wouldn't explain why the Moroccan air base was dropped except to say, ``This is in line with the worldwide elevation of security concerns.''
Atlantis was equipped with a new engine designed to make its climb to orbit safer than ever. One of the three main engines has a new high-pressure fuel turbopump that is built without any welds. The turbopump that it is replacing has 469 welds, each one a potential weak spot.
The shuttle has another safety: It's carrying astronaut James Reilly II, an honorary United States marshal and the first marshal ever launched. He flashed his badge, and a big smile, before boarding Atlantis.