CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The first cooperative space shuttle mission of the United States and Japan got off with unusual punctuality yesterday as a crew of seven rose to orbit aboard the shuttle Endeavour after a nearly flawless countdown.
The 50th flight of the shuttle program left the launching pad at exactly 10:23 a.m., the first flight since 1985 to get off at the precise second it was supposed to.
"What a fabulous day to have a space flight," said Brewster Shaw, deputy manager of the shuttle program. "We now have seven individuals on orbit in a healthy machine. We're off to a super start."
Vice President Dan Quayle, attending his first shuttle launching with his wife, Marilyn, and two of their children, spoke with the spacecraft commander, Capt. Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson of the Navy, shortly before liftoff.
"On behalf of the president and all Americans, we just wish you and your crew good luck and Godspeed," said Mr. Quayle, who serves as chairman of the National Space Council, a White House group that sets national space policy.
"We very much appreciate your support," Captain Gibson replied.
The five men and two women aboard Endeavour immediately got to work activating Spacelab-J, a bus-sized pressurized laboratory in the shuttle's cargo bay that is to be operated round-the-clock for most of the seven-day mission.
Japanese scientists developed 34 of the 43 major experiments of the mission, while seven are from the United States and two were developed by both nations.
Aside from the experiments, many of which are concerned with industrial processes such as growing crystals in space or biological investigations on the effects of near-weightlessness on a small menagerie of animals and insects, the mission is marked by a number of firsts.
With the flight, Dr. Mae C. Jemison, a physician and chemical engineer, became the first black woman to venture into space, and Dr. Mamoru Mohri, a physicist, the first Japanese astronaut to fly aboard an American spacecraft.
In addition, Lt. Col. Mark C. Lee of the Air Force and Dr. N. Jan Davis became the first married couple to fly together in space.
Colonel Lee, 40, and Dr. Davis, 38, both engineers, were married in January 1991, long after being assigned to the current flight.
Rather than reassigning one of the astronauts and losing the benefit of training already completed, and because the couple had no children, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration waived the prohibition against married astronauts flying together.