Space shuttle Endeavour finally blasts off, races toward international space station

Thursday, December 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ Space shuttle Endeavour raced toward the international space station on Thursday to deliver the fourth crew to live in the orbiting outpost.

``It's great to be up here,'' said astronaut Daniel Bursch, who will move into the space station this weekend for a six-month stay. He was awakened Thursday morning by daughter Robyn and her second-grade class singing a couple tunes. ``Miss you guys already,'' he radioed to his wife and four children.

After nearly a week of delays, Endeavour lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for an 11-day mission shortly before sunset Wednesday under extremely tight security.

It was the first shuttle launch since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Endeavour's commander, Dominic Gorie, marked the occasion with some patriotic parting words.

``We're all aware that for over 200 years and certainly over the last two months, freedom rings loud and clear across this country. But right here and right now, it's time to let freedom roar. Let's light them up,'' Gorie told Mission Control shortly before takeoff at 5:19 p.m. eastern time.

The launch was scheduled for last Thursday but a jammed docking mechanism on space station Alpha forced two delays. After that was fixed, bad weather scrubbed Tuesday's attempt. Weather was also a concern Wednesday but it cleared up in time.

Liftoff and its preparations took place under the guard of fighter jets, helicopters and military personnel in camouflage.

The six astronauts and one cosmonaut who lifted off were escorted by guards with automatic rifles to the launch pad while a Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun guarded the road to the area.

A no-fly zone was established 35 miles around the launch pad, and boats were banned within three miles of shore. A single engine-plane strayed into the zone an hour before liftoff but it was intercepted by F-15s and escorted to a nearby airport.

Journalists weren't present when the astronauts departed for the launch pad and space center employees had to be behind a barricade.

The shuttle, due to arrive at Alpha on Friday, is delivering the space station's newest crew. American astronauts Bursch and Carl Walz and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Onufrienko, the new station commander, will stay until May.

Endeavour will be the ride home for Alpha's current residents: commander Frank Culbertson and cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin. They have been living aboard Alpha since August.

Besides ferrying up a load of station supplies, the shuttle also carried New York City police and fire department badges and patches, and flags from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Also on board were thousands of small American flags, which after Endeavour's return Dec. 16 will be given to the families of those killed on Sept. 11 and to survivors of the attacks.

After liftoff, several NYPD, FDNY and New York City OEM (office of emergency management) caps were displayed inside Mission Control.

This is NASA's sixth and final shuttle flight of the year.

``It's a great way to end a great year,'' Kennedy Space Center director Roy Bridges told the launch team. ``You really put the icing on our holiday cake.''