CAPE CANAVERAL, DEC. 2 (SUNDAY) -- The shuttle Columbia finally streaked into orbit today, six months late because of crippling fuel leaks, kicking off a 10-day flight to study exploding suns, mysterious quasars and a smorgasbord of other astronomical enigmas.

With Mars and a full moon shining overhead through a cloudy sky, NASA's oldest space shuttle lifted off at 1:49 a.m. EST -- 21 minutes late because of last-minute concern about low clouds -- shattering the overnight calm with a ground-shaking roar and a burst of sky-lighting flame.

Eight and a half minutes later after a comet-like climb to space, Columbia's three main engines shut down on computer command, putting the $2 billion spaceplane into its planned preliminary orbit. The flight plan called for a small rocket firing 35 minutes later to put the ship into a circular orbit 219 miles up.

"We really had a light show coming up," radioed Commander Vance Brand to Mission Control in Houston. "That was really something."

It was NASA's third shuttle launch in less than two months and the second in 17 days, tying a record set in April 1985 and symbolizing the space agency's apparent recovery from a disappointing summer of setbacks and repeated delays because of hydrogen leaks that grounded Columbia in May and September and the shuttle Atlantis in July.

Commander Brand, 59, copilot Guy Gardner, 42, John "Mike" Lounge, 44, Jeffrey Hoffman, 46, Robert Parker, 53, and civilian astronomers Samuel Durrance, 47, and Ronald Parise, 39, planned to spend their first day in space activating the shuttle's $150 million "Astro-1" payload.

At the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Central Asia, meanwhile, rocket engineers readied a Soyuz booster for takeoff later today to carry a crew of three, including a Japanese television journalist, to the Mir space station where two cosmonauts have been on duty since Aug. 1. If the Soviet launch goes as planned, a record 12 people will be in orbit at the same time this week.

During Columbia's flight, the astronauts plan to study more than 200 celestial targets with four cargo bay telescopes sensitive to high-energy X-rays and ultraviolet light that cannot penetrate Earth's atmosphere.

The astronauts are scheduled to teach an astronomy lesson Friday that will be beamed into U.S. classrooms, and Parise hopes to set up a small radio station to chat with "ham" operators around the world.

If all goes well, Brand, the oldest person to fly in space, will guide Columbia to a landing Dec. 11 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.