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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shuttle Discovery Blasts Off Toward Space Station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Space shuttle Discovery blasted off its seaside launch pad, ending a ban on nighttime flights imposed after the 2003 Columbia disaster, and began chasing the international space station on Sunday.

With its twin booster rockets blazing, the shuttle and seven astronauts lifted off at 8:47:35 p.m. on Saturday with a thundering roar and a brilliant white light that momentarily dispelled the darkness at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

High winds had threatened to delay the flight for the second time in as many days but the gusts calmed, clearing the way for NASA's third shuttle mission in six months.

"You've got a lot of smiling faces up here," Discovery commander Mark Polansky radioed to Mission Control in Houston as the shuttle slipped into orbit.

In their first four hours in space, the astronauts ran through a checklist of tasks, including opening the cargo bay doors and testing the shuttle's robotic arm, before going to sleep.

"Sweet dreams in space," astronaut Megan McArthur at Mission Control in Houston told the Discovery crew.

Five of Discovery's astronauts have never flown in space before, including the European Space Agency's Christer Fuglesang, who became the first Swede in orbit.

The shuttle is headed to the international space station where astronauts face the daunting task of hooking up a new electrical system needed before additional laboratory modules can be installed.

NASA needs to finish the half-built $100 billion outpost before the shuttles, the only spaceships designed for the job, are retired in 2010.

The goal of Discovery's 12-day flight is to install a new piece of the station's exterior structure and rewire the power grid, a task complicated by the fact that the outpost cannot be without power for any period of time.