Space shuttle Endeavour finally blasts off

CAPE CANAVERAL: After more than a month’s delay, space shuttle Endeavour and seven astronauts thundered into orbit Thursday on a flight to the international space station, hauling up a veranda for Japan’s enormous lab and looking to set a crowd record.

Success came on launch try No 6, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the liftoff of man’s first moon landing.

But the mood was dampened somewhat when NASA managers watched the launch video. Eight or nine pieces of foam insulation came off the external fuel tank during liftoff, and the shuttle was hit at least two or three times, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s space operations chief.

Some scuff marks were spotted, but that probably is coating loss and considered minor, he said.

In fact, Mission Control told the astronauts that the damage - which occurred not quite two minutes into the flight - looked to be less extensive than what occurred on the last flight.

Endeavour blasted off a little after 6 pm from its seaside pad - the same one used to launch Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969 - a welcome sight for shuttle workers who had to overcome hydrogen gas leaks last month and, since the weekend, thunderstorms.

The skies finally cleared, allowing commander Mark Polansky and his crew to embark on their 16-day adventure. One more holdup and they would have tied a record for the most shuttle launch delays.