Washington, Dec. 10: Carrying among other things a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a statue of Lord Ganesh and a packet of samosas, Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams soared into space on board the space shuttle Discovery toward the International Space Station that would be her new home in the stars for the next six months.
Discovery, with six other crew, took off at 8.47 pm EST on Saturday (7.17 am IST Sunday) on a column of fire that briefly dispelled the darkness over the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Strong winds had put in doubt Nasa’s first night launch since the Columbia disaster in 2003 which killed another Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla, but the gusts subsided about an hour before. Bad weather postponed an initial launch attempt on Thursday.
“Forty-eight hours makes a tremendous difference,” Nasa launch director Mike Leinbach told Discovery’s crew shortly before launch. “The weather is outstanding, the vehicle’s in great shape, so we wish you all good luck, Godspeed and we’ll see you back here in 12 days.” Replied Discovery commander Mark Polansky: “We look forward to lighting up the night sky.”
During the 12-day mission, the astronauts will rewire the space station’s electrical system, a crucial step in Nasa’s plan to finish building the outpost before the shuttles stop flying in four years. The launch was the third space shuttle mission in six months. In addition to Sunita Williams and Polansky, the crew includes Sweden’s first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang, pilot William Oefelein, flight engineer Robert Curbeam, and mission specialists Nicholas Patrick, and Joan Higginbotham. Managers recently lifted the ban on night launches, imposed after the 2003 Columbia disaster to ensure cameras had good lighting to spot any debris falling off the shuttle’s fuel tank.
Debris damaged Columbia, triggering the breakup of the ship and the death of Chawla and six other astronauts as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. The fuel tank has since been redesigned. Discovery is scheduled to land on December 21 at the Kennedy Space Centre. A copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a small statue of Lord Ganesh and a letter written in Hindi by her father Deepak Pandya will be among the few things Williams is carrying into space — besides some samosas in a special container.
Half-Indian and half-American, Commander Sunita Williams is a graduate of the US Naval Academy. She is one of only six women Nasa has put in space since 1965. Her father is an Indian-born doctor and her mother a homemaker of Yugoslav descent. Williams’ mission, the 20th to the space station, will include a complex set of tasks carried out over three spacewalks, including adding a small structural truss to the orbiting laboratory.