The US space shuttle Endeavour blasted off from a seaside Florida launch pad on Tuesday to deliver part of a long-awaited Japanese space laboratory and a Canadian-built robotic system to the International Space Station.
Piercing the still of night with a thunderous boom and a flash of white-hot flame, the spaceship lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 2:28 a.m. EDT (0628 GMT) and disappeared swiftly into clouds to begin a 16-day flight.
"We'd like to say konnichiwa, domo arigato and banzai [hello, thank you and banzai]," commander Dominic Gorie said shortly before liftoff, speaking some Japanese in a nod to that country's important role in the mission.
"God truly has blessed us with a beautiful night here to launch so let's light 'em up and give 'em a show."
With the arrival of Japan's lab, all 15 partner countries in the space station venture - the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 members of the European Space Agency - are represented in orbit. Europe's first permanent space lab, Columbus, was delivered to the station last month.
The $100 billion space station is around 60 per cent complete after a decade of construction and must be finished by the time the three remaining US space shuttles are retired in 2010.
Endeavour, thrust by its three main engines and two solid rocket boosters that were jettisoned on the way up to a speed of more than 17,000 miles per hour (28,000 km per hour), was carrying the first part of the elaborate Japanese space laboratory called Kibo, meaning "hope."
About the size of a double-decker bus, Kibo will be the station's largest laboratory and the only one with facilities for art along with experiment racks for biomedical studies, fluid physics research and life science.
The main part of the laboratory is scheduled for launch in May and the final part - an external porch for experiments in vacuum - next year. Much of its equipment and computers are inside the storage chamber riding aboard Endeavour.
After a safety inspection in orbit to check for damage during launch, Endeavour is scheduled to slip into a berthing port at the station on Wednesday.
One of the Endeavour astronauts, Garrett Reisman, will remain onboard the space station, replacing French astronaut Leopold Eyharts who will return to Earth.
Delivering the first part of Kibo is only the beginning of a complicated 12-day mission at the station, which includes five spacewalks by the Endeavour crew.
Two outings are reserved for the assembly of the Canadian-built robotic system named Dextre, which adds manual dexterity and another 30 feet (9 metres) of reach to the station's mobile crane.
Spacewalking astronauts will also test a heat shield repair technique developed after the 2003 Columbia disaster so shuttle crews have a better chance of surviving re-entry with a damaged spaceship.
Columbia was hit by falling debris during launch that broke through heat panels on one of its wings. The shuttle was torn apart as it flew through the atmosphere for landing, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
NASA wants to have the heat shield repair kit as complete as possible before dispatching a shuttle at the end of the summer to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. In case of an emergency, the Hubble mission crew won't be able to reach the space station for shelter.
Only 11 flights remain before the United States retires its shuttle fleet, leaving the country dependent on partners for rides to orbit until new Orion capsules are ready in 2015.
One option that NASA will have for taking cargo to the space station will be Europe's new unmanned spaceship, called an Automated Transfer Vehicle.
The European Space Agency's debut spacecraft launched from French Guiana on Saturday and will hover near the space station during Endeavour's visit, waiting for its turn to dock. (Reuters)
Lift-off for space shuttle Endeavour