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United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches at 4:44 p.m. with Cygnus spacecraft from Cape Canaveral heading toward the International Space Station. NASA video. Posted Dec.6, 2015

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CAPE CANAVERAL – A Cygnus spacecraft is safely on its way to the International Space Station for the first time in nearly 18 months, carrying holiday gifts among its more than 7,000 pounds of cargo.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 4:44 p.m. Sunday, after weather had thwarted three previous countdowns.

The 194-foot rocket quickly disappeared into low clouds and 21 minutes later dropped the Cygnus in a perfect orbit more than 140 miles up.

“ISS, Santa is on his way,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno said on Twitter.

“There’s a lot of people waiting for Christmas presents up there,” added Frank Culbertson, head of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group, in congratulatory remarks to the launch team. “And to our NASA customer, here we come. Be ready.”

The Cygnus is on track to rendezvous with the International Space Station and its six-person crew around 6:10 a.m. Wednesday.

Station crew members could see the launch as they flew about 250 miles overhead, and NASA astronaut and Expedition 45 crew member Scott Kelly shared a gorgeous picture on Twitter of the rocket climbing into space at sunset.

The rocket and spacecraft appeared as a bright point of light pushing into the blackness of space, trailing behind an exhaust plume that stretched through bands of deep blue, yellow, orange and red light.

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The scene was a welcome one not only for its beauty, but because the station needs the supplies now on their way.

Reserves of food and spare parts in orbit have been strained by three failed resupply missions over the past 13 months, including one each by NASA’s two commercial U.S. partners, Orbital ATK and SpaceX.

The mishaps began in October 2014 when Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket lost thrust and exploded seconds after lifting off from Wallops Island, Virginia.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated about two minutes into a flight from Cape Canaveral in June this year.

As a result, the current Cygnus mission would be the first U.S. delivery of cargo since April, the last time SpaceX’s Dragon capsule reached the station. A Cygnus last reached the station in July 2014.

“We are very proud to be back in space again,” Culbertson told reporters after the launch. “It’s very exciting to finally be heading to the International Space Station again.”

Orbital ATK bought two Cygnus rides from Florida on ULA’s Atlas V while re-fitting its own Antares rocket with new engines.

Launching for the 60th time without a major failure, the Atlas V did not disappoint on Sunday, placing the Cygnus in an orbit that Orbital ATK described as "right on the money.”

“This is about as good as it gets,” Vernon Thorp, ULA’s manager for NASA missions, told NASA TV. “I know that the crew up on the ISS is really looking forward to getting this load of cargo.”

That cargo includes several months of food, a spacesuit jet pack and high-pressure oxygen and nitrogen tanks to help replenish the station's air supply.

It will also support dozens of science experiments, some run by students. One tiny satellite to be deployed from the ISS, built by elementary students from St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Virginia, carries a camera and a crucifix with a medallion blessed by Pope Francis.

Another experiment will test flame-resistant materials that could benefit first responders.

The mission is Orbital ATK's fourth of 10 under a NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract worth more than $2 billion.

The launch was ULA’s last of a dozen this year, all successes, and the company plans as many as 16 launches next year. The next one is targeted for Feb. 3.

SpaceX hopes to return its Falcon 9 rocket to flight with a commercial satellite launch from Cape Canaveral this month, on a date still to be confirmed. SpaceX’s next launch of station cargo is possible in early January.

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Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or jdean@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter at@flatoday_jdean and on Facebook at facebook.com/jamesdeanspace

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