Liftoff: Discovery soars on the Fourth of July on the first shuttle flight in a year

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA gave the shuttle Discovery a majestic Fourth of July send-off and said early signs showed the spacecraft was in good shape, despite once again being struck by the flying foam that has plagued the program.

The first-ever Independence Day manned launch came after two weather delays and over objections from those within NASA who argued for more fuel-tank repairs.

Shuttle managers said early video images of liftoff showing small pieces of foam breaking away -- and one even striking the spacecraft -- were not troubling.

"The tank performed very, very well, indeed, very pleased," shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said Tuesday night, five hours after liftoff. "As opposed to where we were last year, we saw nothing that gives us any kind of concern about the health of the crew or the vehicle."

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said of the launch: "They don't get much better than this."

It was Griffin who chose to go ahead with the mission over concerns from the space agency's safety officer and chief engineer about foam problems that have dogged the agency since Columbia was doomed by a flyaway chunk of insulation 3 1/2 years ago.

Discovery thundered away from its seaside pad at 1:38 p.m CDT.

Good luck and Godspeed

About three minutes later, as many as five pieces of debris were seen flying off the tank, and another piece of foam popped off a bit later, Mission Control told the crew. The latter piece struck the belly of Discovery, but NASA assured the seven astronauts it was no concern because of the timing.

Hale said Discovery was so high when the pieces came off that there wasn't enough air to accelerate the foam into the shuttle and cause damage.

"It's all very minor. It's all very late," Hale said. "So at the end of the day, I'm very pleased with the performance of the tank. This is a great improvement from where we were."

The astronauts reported seeing what they described as a large piece of cloth tumbling away from Discovery soon after reaching orbit. It looked like one of the thermal blankets that protects the shuttle, they said, but Mission Control told them it was likely ice and that a similar observation was made during Discovery's flight a year ago. "Wow, that's real good news," said shuttle commander Steven Lindsey. Hale later confirmed it was ice.

Hale and others on the launch management team were in a jubilant mood over the smooth liftoff.

"No, we did not plan to launch on the Fourth of July, but it sure did work out to be great to launch on Independence Day," said Hale, who was wearing a patriotic tie.

"Discovery's ready, the weather's beautiful, America is ready to return the space shuttle to flight. So good luck and Godspeed, Discovery," launch director Mike Leinbach said just before liftoff.

"I can't think of a better place to be here on the Fourth of July," radioed Lindsey. "For all the folks on the Florida east coast, we hope to very soon get you an up-close and personal look at the rocket's red glare."

It was unclear for a while Monday whether Discovery would fly at all.

A slice of foam, not much bigger than a crust of bread, fell off an expansion joint on the external fuel tank as the spacecraft sat on the launch pad. Shuttle managers concluded Monday night after intensive engineering analysis that the remaining foam on that part of the tank was solid.

Engineers said the piece -- 3 inches long and just one-tenth of an ounce -- was too small to pose a threat even if it had come off during launch and smacked the shuttle. Inspectors devised a long pole with a camera to inspect the joint and found no evidence of further damage. NASA also made sure there was no excessive ice buildup at that spot Tuesday.

The fallen foam, albeit harmless, added to the tension already surrounding this mission.

NASA's chief engineer and top-ranking safety official objected two weeks ago to the 12-day mission without eliminating lingering dangers from foam loss, considered probable and potentially catastrophic.

They were overruled by shuttle managers and, ultimately, Griffin. He stressed the need to get on with building the half-done, long-overdue space station before the shuttles are retired in 2010 to make way for a moonship, per President Bush's orders.

Hale said Tuesday night that additional repairs will be made to future fuel tanks, regardless of Discovery's successful launch.

Griffin said he welcomed the debate over Discovery's launch and acknowledged that the space agency plays the odds with every shuttle liftoff.

If photos during launch or the flight show serious damage to Discovery, the crew could move into the space station. Then a risky shuttle rescue -- fraught with its own problems -- would have to be mounted. The rescue ship, Atlantis, would face the same potential foam threat at launch. NASA also worked on a possible plan for flying Discovery back to Earth unmanned if necessary.

Many have speculated that if anything happens to Discovery or its crew, the shuttle program could end with this mission, and plans for moon and Mars exploration could be put in jeopardy.

In its flight last July, Discovery experienced dangerous foam loss, though the chunk was smaller than one that slammed into Columbia's left wing, and it missed Discovery altogether.

Just like a year ago, more than 100 cameras and radar were trained on Discovery at liftoff to spot any foam shedding. The intensive picture-taking continued with on-board cameras and the astronauts snapping zoom-in shots upon reaching orbit.

NASA figures it will be nearly a week before it can decisively say whether any debris hit and damaged Discovery during launch. As of Tuesday night, NASA had looked at about one-third of all the data collected, Hale said.

Last July, cameras caught a 1-pound chunk two minutes after liftoff, despite extensive repairs that came after the Columbia disaster killed seven astronauts in 2003. The big piece of foam came off an area untouched in the wake of the tragedy. Smaller pieces popped off other parts of the 154-foot tank.

Over the past year, NASA has removed foam from the location of last year's largest foam loss, saying it represented the biggest aerodynamic change to the shuttle in 25 years of flight. Engineers deemed the foam there unnecessary.

Shuttle managers put off repairs to another potentially dangerous area of the tank, foam wedges to insulate the metal brackets that hold pressurized lines in place. The foam prevents ice and frost from forming on the brackets once the tank is filled with super-cold fuel.

Managers said they wanted to make one major change at a time. The space agency's chief engineer disagreed as did the chief safety officer, saying they would rather take the extra six months to fix the problem before launching.

Griffin contends NASA doesn't have time to spare with the shuttles set to be phased out in 2010.

One of the seven crew on Discovery is a German, Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency, who will move into the space station for a half-year stay, joining the American and Russian there already.

Reiter will bring the size of the station crew to three for the first time since 2003.

Besides commander Lindsey and Reiter, Discovery is carrying pilot Mark Kelly; Michael Fossum and Piers Sellers, who will conduct at least two spacewalks at the station; and Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson.

Beginning Wednesday, they will survey use a 50-foot inspection boom to view the shuttle for damage. They also will make repairs to the space station and deliver much-needed supplies.

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