CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour blasted off Monday carrying the last major component of the International Space Station -- a seven-windowed dome for breathtaking panoramic views.
The picture-perfect predawn lift-off came at 4:14 am (0914 GMT), after a first attempt was scrubbed on Sunday due to heavy cloud cover above the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It was likely the last nighttime launching as the shuttle program nears retirement, with just another four flights left.
The spacecraft and its crew of six astronauts successfully reached orbit about eight and a half minutes later.
"We wish you good luck and Godspeed, and see you in about two weeks," launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew shortly before lift-off.
Endeavour Commander George Zamka thanked the teams who worked to make the shuttle mission possible.
"See you in a couple of weeks. It's time to go to fly," he said.
The Endeavour mission's main goal is to deliver the massive Tranquility module, also known as Node 3, which comes with a multi-window cupola attached. Once the items installed, the ISS will be 90 percent complete.
Built for NASA by the European group Thales Alenia Space in their Turin factory, the cupola provides panoramic views of Earth and space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.
Tranquility, named after the lunar sea where Apollo 11 landed, has the most sophisticated life support system ever flown into space -- air revitalization, oxygen generation and water recycling systems, as well as a waste and hygiene compartment for the crew.
Six windows arrayed along the cupola's sides and another on top -- all protected against the impact of tiny meteorites -- will provide an unprecedented panoramic view for those onboard and help crew members monitor spacewalks and docking operations.
The cupola can also accommodate two crew members at a time, and is equipped with portable workstations that can control station and robotic activities.
The mission, one of five scheduled for NASA's three shuttles before the program ends later this year after a 29-year run, comes as the space agency reevaluates its future after President Barack Obama effectively abandoned its plan to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020.
The Constellation program was intended to develop a successor spacecraft to the shuttle, which could carry astronauts to the moon. They could then use a lunar base to launch manned missions to Mars.
Constrained by soaring deficits, Obama submitted a budget to Congress that encourages NASA to focus instead on developing commercial transport alternatives to ferry astronauts to the ISS after the shuttle program ends.
Tranquility is seven meters (23.6 feet) long and has a pressurized cylindrical hull 4.5 meters (14.5 feet) in diameter, with a shallow conical section enclosing each end. Together with the cupola, it weighed more than 15 tonnes (16.5 tons) at launch.
Installing the module is expected to require a team of two astronauts to undertake three spacewalks lasting 6.5 hours each.
The ISS, a joint project involving 16 countries, has cost around 100 billion dollars, mostly funded by the United States.
Under Obama's new budget, the floating research station could see its life extended by five years until 2020.
Meanwhile, astronauts will have access to Russia's Soyuz craft for transport to the station, but the US space agency will be called upon to help a US private sector alternative.
© AFP 2013