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Shuttle lifts off with new station crew

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Discovery blasted off Thursday on a mission to replace the weary crew of the international space station with three fresh workers.

The shuttle climbed through a clear, chilly, peach-tinged sky just moments after sunrise, carrying six astronauts and one cosmonaut, as well as a full load of station supplies.

To NASA's relief, the temperature stayed in the mid to high 40s during the final few hours of the countdown, not nearly cold enough for ice to form on the shuttle's external fuel tank. At liftoff, it was 45, one of the colder launch-time temperatures.

"Looks like a beautiful day to go fly," launch director Mike Leinbach told the shuttle crew right before liftoff.

Replied Discovery's commander, James Wetherbee, "Expedition 2 is ready to relieve Expedition 1."

The international space station, Alpha, and its three residents were soaring above the Indian Ocean near Australia when Discovery took off at 6:42 a.m. The shuttle should reach the station early Saturday.

The main objective of Discovery's 12-day flight is to exchange Alpha crews. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev and American astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms will move into the space station for a 4 1/2-month stay, relieving the orbiting outpost's first crew.

Voss calmly flipped through an aviation magazine as he waited for the ride to the launch pad early Thursday and the mission for which he'd been training for five years. Helms looked a little sad. "Bye, Mom," she said, waving to the TV cameras. She will be the first woman to live on space station Alpha.

Before crawling into Discovery, Voss and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev, the station's next commander, held up a small white sign with the words "Happy Women's Day!" printed in Russian and English.

The countdown was so quiet and trouble-free that Leinbach jokingly told his team after liftoff: "I was beginning to think something was wrong because nothing was wrong." The ride to orbit also appeared to be flawless.

Russia's ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov, thanked NASA for its "magnificent job" of sending up the first Russian commander of the international space station.

"This launch once again shows that Russia and the U.S. have excellent cooperation in space as well as on the Earth," the ambassador said.

The space station's first commander, American astronaut Bill Shepherd, and his two Russian crewmates have been living aboard Alpha since Nov. 2, spending almost every day fixing or installing equipment.

Because of the first crew's labors, Usachev and his two U.S. crewmates should have an easier time. They hope to devote 20 percent of their time to scientific research.

Space shuttle Atlantis dropped off the $1.4 billion Destiny laboratory three weeks ago.