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With Ganesh, the Gita and samosas, Sunita Williams heads for the stars


Washington: A copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a small statue of Lord Ganesh and a letter written in Hindi by her father Deepak Pandya and some samosas in a special container will be among other things that Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams carried as she soared into space on board 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 8:47:35 p.m. Saturday (7:17: 35 a.m. IST Sunday) on a column of fire that briefly dispelled the darkness over the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Strong winds had put in doubt NASA's first night launch since the Columbia disaster in 2003 that killed another Indian American astronaut Kalpana Chawla, but the gusts subsided about an hour before. Bad weather postponed an initial launch attempt 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 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 break-up of the ship and the death of Chawla and six other astronauts as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The fuel tank has since been redesigned.

Discovery is scheduled to land Dec 21 at the Kennedy Space Center. It will bring back to earth German Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency in place of Williams who will spend six months at the International Space station along with a Russian and an American astronaut.

Half Indian half American, commander 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 and reconfiguring the station's electrical system to begin drawing power from solar panels added on the last mission.

The astronauts will also move an older set of solar arrays out of the way of the new arrays, which will turn on their axis like a paddle wheel as the station follows its orbital path.

DPA adds: Discovery is bound for a construction mission on the International Space Stations (ISS), in orbit 400 km above the earth.

The flight's primary mission is to hook up the ISS' permanent electricity generating system, replacing a temporary power system operating since the space station went into orbit in 1998. Two spacewalks are planned to rewire both halves of the station.

The plan is to deliver Indian origin astronaut Williams to replace German astronaut Thomas Reiter after five and a half months in residence on the space station, which has a rotating crew of three astronauts.

With the successful launch, Discovery crew member Christer Fugelsang of Sweden becomes the first Scandinavian in space.

The mission is the 33rd for Discovery and the 117th space shuttle launch since the program began flying in 1981. With two catastrophic failures in its history, the shuttle fleet is slated to be mothballed after the scheduled completion of ISS construction in 2010.