Cape Canaveral, Florida: US space shuttle, Atlantis, blasted off into space with a crew of seven at 1945 GMT on Thursday. The long-delayed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is intended to deliver the European Columbus space lab.
The crew includes a German, Hans Schlegel, and a Frenchman, Leopold Eyharts.
Attaining speeds of more than 6,000 kilometres (3,200) per hour less than one minute after take-off the shuttle reached orbit after less than 10 minutes.
The Atlantis mission will deliver the 10-tonne European laboratory unit Columbus to the International Space Station. With room inside for three people and operated by ground staff at a control centre near Munich, Germany, the 1.3 billion euros ($2 billion) Columbus will enable the European Space Agency (ESA) to conduct experiments related to biotechnology, medicine, materials and liquids.
The ISS is being developed as a jumping-off point for exploration to Mars and beyond. An American and Russian crew currently man the space station.
The main mission is to transfer the Columbus out of Atlantis's payload bay and attaching it to the space station with the help of the ISS's robot arm.
Three space walks are also scheduled during the mission.
Analysts say that the mission will likely turn out to be a landmark one for Europe, given the complexities of the tasks that will be attended to.
While German astronaut Schlegel will conduct two space walks during the flight to connect power and fluid lines between Columbus and the ISS, French astronaut Eyharts will start Europe's second longest stay on the space station.
The European record for the longest stay is that of a German ESA astronaut, Thomas Reiter, who stayed onboard for six months in 2006.
Atlantis was originally scheduled for blastoff on December 6, but malfunctioning circuits in the fuel gauges of the spacecraft's liquid hydrogen tank forced a two-month delay.
Now NASA officials say that the cause of the recurrent problem had been tracked down and fixed.