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For shuttle Discovery, a picture-perfect launch after months of delays

After a photogenic lift-off, the space shuttle Discovery and its crew headed toward the International Space Station. The crew will inspect the orbiter's tiles after some insulating foam fell late in the ascent.

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Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Feb. 24. Discovery launched into orbit on its final flight on Thursday for a 11-day mission to the International Space Station.

Pierre Ducharme/Reuters

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The space shuttle Discovery and its six-member crew arced into the afternoon sky Thursday in a photogenic lift-off that marks the venerable orbiter's final flight. The otherwise flawless launch, which followed months of delays to repair and prevent cracks around the shuttle's external fuel tank, experienced what appeared to be only minor glitches.

Crowds packed parking lots at the Kennedy Space Center's Visitors' Center, while cars and campers lined nearby causeways in numbers not seen for years. One NASA spokesman speculated that the number of spectators could rival some of the largest crowds ever to gather for a launch.

Over the next 11 days, the orbiter and crew are slated to deliver some 5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station, including Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot that could eventually become the station crew's silent partner in maintaining the orbiting outpost.

In addition, the shuttle is carrying a module once designed as a cosmic shipping container but which now will serve as additional storage space when it's mated to the space station during the mission.

For Discovery, "this is a great way to go out," said Michael Leinbach, the shuttle launch director during a post-launch briefing. All of the orbiter's systems worked flawlessly, and the repairs to the external fuel tank which delayed a launch originally scheduled for early November, appear to have been successful as well.

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