CAPE CANAVERAL - The space shuttle Endeavour blasted off late Friday carrying seven American astronauts on a "home improvement" mission that will expand living quarters on the orbiting International Space Station.
Endeavour, packing the power equivalent to a small nuclear bomb, lit up the night sky as it twisted up and away from the Kennedy Space Center launchpad at 7:55 pm Friday (0055 GMT Saturday).
Night launches are rare but spectacular, and the nearly full moon hovering in the sky made for a breathtaking backdrop near Cape Canaveral, Florida.
"The vehicle is in good shape, the weather is beautiful," flight director Mike Leinback told the Endeavour crew as he gave the green light.
"Good luck, Godspeed, and have a happy Thanksgiving in orbit," he said, referring to the American holiday that falls on November 27 when the shuttle will still be in orbit.
Four minutes into flight, NASA's shuttle was racing along at 6,000 miles (9,600 kilometers) per hour, and continued to pick up speed before leaving Earth's atmosphere eight minutes 33 seconds after liftoff, hurtling towards a rendezvous Sunday with the space station that will last 12 days.
The mission of the Endeavour, which launched nearly 10 years to the day since a shuttle crew first began constructing the ISS on November 20, 1998, will be to repair the station's power-generating solar arrays and expand its living quarters to accommodate bigger crews.
"This mission is all about home improvement," shuttle commander Chris Ferguson said this week during launch preparations. "Home improvement inside and outside the station."
It will be the most extreme home makeover ever attempted by NASA astronauts. The additions will include two new sleeping quarters, exercise equipment, a second toilet, two new ovens to heat food, a refrigerator for food and drinks, a freezer and an oven for scientific experiments.
Endeavour will be carrying 14.5 tonnes of material and equipment to the Italian module Leonardo, allowing for the ISS crew to expand from three to six in 2009.
As one NASA expert described it on NASA Television shortly after the launch, the upgrades will effectively turn the ISS into "a five-bedroom two-bath house with a kitchen, and support six residents on a continuing basis."
The astronauts also will be installing a system that can turn urine back into drinking water. The 250-million-dollar upgrade will allow enough recycling for a six-person ISS crew to sharply reduce the amount of water that has to be flown out from Earth.
The 27th shuttle flight to the orbiting space station and the fourth and final shuttle mission for 2008 consists of a crew of five men and two women, all Americans.
Earlier on Friday NASA technicians had tanked up the external fuel reservoir with two million liters (530,000 gallons) of mostly super-cooled, liquid hydrogen.
NASA TV showed live images of the astronauts strapped into their command chairs in the cockpit as a team of US space agency technicians made final preparations on the flight deck.
With less than 20 minutes before liftoff, NASA experts noticed a potential problem that could have delayed the mission: someone failed to pin back and secure a door on the inside of the shuttle, whose hatch had already been sealed when the problem was spotted.
NASA had raised concerns that the door flopping around during ascent could become a debris hazard, but officials determined any damage to the craft would be minimal and decided to go ahead with the launch.
Over the next day or so, astronauts aboard the ISS are expected to begin limbering up the space station's robotic arm to prepare for the inspection of Endeavour's heat protection shield.
Endeavour's crew includes commander Ferguson, 47, co-pilot Eric Boe, 44, and five other mission specialists including Sandra Magnus, 44.
She will replace compatriot Greg Chamitoff as ISS Expedition 18 flight engineer. Chamitoff is scheduled to return to Earth on Endeavour in late November while Magnus is to stay on through February 2009.
Endeavour's mission is scheduled to end November 29, though NASA has said the flight could well be extended a day.