The liftoff, less than an hour before sunrise, helped clinch a record for the most women in space at the same time.
Three women are aboard Discovery, and another is at the space station. The shuttle should arrive at the orbiting outpost tomorrow.
In a rare treat, the space station passed over the launch site 15 minutes before Discovery blasted off and was visible, resembling a big, brilliant star in the clear morning sky. By launch time, the outpost had travelled almost all the way across the Atlantic.
“It’s time for you to rise to orbit. Good luck and Godspeed,” launch director Pete Nickolenko told the astronauts right before liftoff.
“Let’s do it!” replied commander Alan Poindexter.
Discovery could be seen with the naked eye for seven minutes as it shot upward, adding to the show. And almost as an encore, the exhaust plumes fanned out across the sky.
The six space station residents gathered around the dinner table to watch the launch on a laptop computer. “We are absolutely delighted to have our friendly comrades joining us here in a couple of days,” said spaceman Timothy Creamer.
“Stand by for a knock on the door,” Mission Control radioed.
Japan celebrated its own space feat with Discovery’s liftoff. Two of its astronauts were circling Earth at the same time, one on the shuttle and the other on the station. More than 300 Japanese journalists and space programme officials crowded the launch site; the roads leading to the Kennedy Space Center also were jammed with people eager to see one of the few remaining shuttle flights.
Only three shuttle missions remain after this one. Nasa intends to retire its fleet by the end of September, but is unsure what will follow for human spaceflight. President Barack Obama will visit the area on April 15.