US space shuttle Endeavour was blasting through space yesterday, taking the first teacher there 21 years after the Challenger explosion ended the dream of another pioneering teacher.
Teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan, 55, has become the star of the second shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this year, as the space agency NASA has otherwise been tainted by stories of drunken and love-crazed astronauts.
Her chance to fly into space came at last with Endeavour's launch at 6:36pm on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center.
The booster rockets separated about two minutes after the shuttle lifted off, and Endeavour was hurtling toward space at a speed of 24,000kph, a NASA official said.
"Class is in session," a NASA mission control spokesman said after the external fuel storage tank separated from the shuttle and the Endeavour entered its preliminary orbit less than nine minutes into the flight.
NASA desribed it as a "flawless" lift-off.
"A launch operation doesn't get any better than this," NASA administrator Mike Griffin said.
The shuttle is due to reach the orbiting space station at 5:53pm GMT today.
First lady Laura Bush, a former teacher herself, called Morgan Tuesday to offer congratulations from "one school teacher to another."
Morgan had trained alongside fellow teacher Christa McAuliffe in the 1980s as a backup for the Challenger shuttle mission.
NASA had hoped that sending a teacher into space would fire the imaginations of millions and keep up support for its shuttle program.
But on Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger exploded and broke up 73 seconds after blast-off, killing all seven aboard, and delaying for two decades Morgan's own aspirations to carry out a mission with the elite astronaut corps.
"Christa was, is, and always will be our `Teacher in Space,' our first teacher to fly" in a shuttle, Morgan said in an interview released by NASA.
"She truly knew what this was all about -- not just bringing the world to her classroom, but also helping ... to show the world what teachers do," she said.
After the Challenger disaster Morgan went back to teaching, and then rejoined the astronaut corps in 1998.
Once in space she will operate robotic arms on the ISS and the shuttle to unload and install new equipment and supplies on the space station.
In keeping with her roles as "educator astronaut" she is also due to answer questions from school children during a broadcast from the station.
Endeavour is taking seven astronauts on an 11-day mission to continue the expansion of the ISS, an orbiting laboratory that NASA considers a key part of its space exploration ambitions and a stepping stone for exploring Mars.
The mission will carry a truss section about the size of a small car to extend the space station to a length of 108m -- about the size of a football pitch.
The astronauts will also replace a defective gyroscope, one of four keeping the space station on an even keel, and install an external stowage platform.