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Space shuttle Atlantis blasted into orbit Tuesday with seven astronauts on a mission to study the environment of our planet.

Atlantis roared off its seaside pad at 6:14 a.m. MST. The spaceship rose on a 700-foot pillar of flame and headed out over the Atlantic Ocean and up along the East Coast.Low clouds over the emergency landing site at Kennedy Space Center caused a 14-minute delay in the launch. Other weather problems, including a worrisome storm off the coast, had dissipated earlier.

Atlantis' twin solid rocket boosters dropped into the ocean two minutes into the flight as planned, resembling a falling star from the launch site. Atlantis reached its 184-mile-high orbit in the usual 81/2 minutes.

It was NASA's second attempt to send up Atlantis. The first, on Monday, was halted 51/2 hours before liftoff by fuel leaks that officials said were minor.

"It doesn't look much better than it did to me this morning," said departing NASA administrator Richard Truly, who was forced to resign under White House pressure. "It was a beautiful launch, and I was delighted to be down here for it."

The eight-day flight - shuttle mission No. 46 - is the first devoted to atmospheric research. The shuttle carries 13 scientific instruments. Among other things, scientists hope to learn more about damage to the ozone layer.

During the flight, about 200 research stations around the world will make observations as well. The combined effort is expected to yield the most comprehensive study of the atmosphere ever.

Researchers from seven countries have been working on the mission since the early 1980s. The flight originally was scheduled for 1986 but was put on hold after Challenger exploded that year.

"It's speaking much more to the people now than it was at that moment," said Dirk Frimout, a Belgian physicist and crew member. "It's surely on time that we do it now."

A report last month indicated an ozone hole probably would form in the skies over the Northern Hemisphere later this year.

Besides Frimout, the only non-American aboard Atlantis, the crew members are commander Charles Bolden, pilot Brian Duffy, David Leestma, Kathryn Sullivan, Michael Foale and Byron Lichtenberg.

Frimout is the first Belgian to fly in space. On hand to see him off were Princes Philippe and Laurent, nephews of Belgium's King Baudouin, who are first and third in line to the throne, respectively.

The mission is part of a long-term NASA program to study the environment from space.

The leaks in Atlantis' engine compartment on Monday were traced to seals in the plumbing that apparently contracted in response to the super-cold fuel.


(Additional information)

Atlantis crew roster

Charles F. Bolden

Post: Commander

Rank: Colonel, USMC

Age: 45

Space experience: Two shuttle missions

Brian Duffy

Post: Pilot

Rank: Lieutenant Col, USAF

Age: 38

Space experience: None

Kathryn D. Sullivan

Post: Mission Specialist 1

Age: 40

Space experience: Two shuttle missions

David C. Leestma

Post: Mission Specialist 2

Rank: Captain, USN

Age: 42

Space experience: Two shuttle missions

Michael Foale

Post: Mission Specialist 3

Age: 35

Space experience: None

Dirk D. Frimout

Post: Payload Specialist 1

Age: 51

Space experience: None

Byron D. Lichtenberg

Post: Payload Specialist 2

Age: 44

Space experience: One shuttle mission