CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The space shuttle Discovery blasted off into orbit Tuesday, opening a new chapter in space history more than two years after the Columbia tragedy grounded NASA's shuttle fleet. However, several hours after the launch, questions arose about some debris falling from the shuttle.
“It’s a great day,” said deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.
Thousands of onlookers cheered as Discovery rose from its launch pad at 10:39 a.m. ET, its white plume blending in with the cottony clouds over NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Shuttle commander Eileen Collins, making her fourth spaceflight — and possibly her last flight before retirement — told controllers later that "we had by far the smoothest ascent" she had ever experienced.
Amazingly vivid video imagery, transmitted from a camera mounted on the shuttle's external fuel tank, appeared to show at least one piece of debris falling away from the spacecraft during the ascent, but it wasn’t clear if the shuttle’s sensitive skin had been jeopardized.
More than 100 cameras captured Discovery's rise, and Hale said the space agency would be going over all the video footage “frame by frame” for any signs of hazards or damage.
A 1½-inch-wide bit of tile captured on camera appeared to fly off the shuttle’s belly, on the edge of a door that encloses the nose landing gear. It was not clear if the tile had been struck by anything. Pieces of tile, which protect the shuttle from searing heat on return to Earth, have been lost on past flights without preventing a safe homecoming.
"We have not lost a tile. We may have lost a piece of a tile," said John Shannon, a NASA operations manager.
Also, a large object — perhaps a piece of foam insulation — seemed to fly off from the giant external fuel tank but did not hit the shuttle itself, Shannon said.
“The big question is, what is that?” Shannon said. He said it was too early to determine whether the debris posed any danger to the shuttle. Shannon said the cameras have provided the space agency with more detailed images than it has ever seen before, and it was not clear whether the debris was anything out of the ordinary.
“I fully expected we would see things that we hadn’t seen in the past,” said Shannon.
Shannon also disclosed that the nose cone of the fuel tank hit a bird during liftoff.
NASA managers said they would take several days to make a full judgment of any damage to the shuttle and decide how to deal with it.
It was a piece of flying debris that doomed Columbia in 2003, leading to the deaths of the seven astronauts aboard. That tragedy was not far from anyone’s minds Tuesday.
“There will only be one thing better than today’s launch, and that will be the landing in 12 days,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach. NASA's associate administrator for space operations, William Readdy, said the space agency owed the Columbia crew and their families “a debt of gratitude.”
Some of those families were in attendance for the launch at Cape Canaveral, as was first lady Laura Bush and her brother-in-law, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Tuesday's smooth liftoff came in sharp contrast to Discovery's first launch attempt, 13 days earlier, which was marred by a launch-pad accident and a mysterious fuel-gauge glitch that forced a halt to the countdown.
Mission managers said they would have considered granting an exception to their launch rules if the glitch reappeared, but the issue never arose: NASA said all of the sensors worked just as expected, avoiding a potential controversy over the space agency's post-Columbia commitment to safety.
Hale said any decision on changing the rules would have to wait until after Discovery landed.
Returning to flight
Discovery's rise marked the first shuttle launch since Jan. 16, 2003, when Columbia lifted off at precisely the same time of day, 10:39 a.m. During Columbia's ascent, flying foam insulation from the external fuel tank hit the left wing, opening up a hole that doomed the shuttle when it returned from space 16 days later, on Feb. 1. The shuttle broke up over Texas, killing all aboard.
NASA has spent an estimated $1.5 billion over the past two years to address post-Columbia safety concerns. The fuel tank and dozens of other shuttle components have been redesigned to remedy flaws that were found during the Columbia investigation.
Discovery is now heading for the international space station to deliver tons of supplies, research equipment and replacement parts. En route, it will use a newly designed, 50-foot-long (15-meter-long) extension boom to inspect critical areas of the shuttle's skin with cameras and laser sensors.
When it arrives at the station on Thursday, the shuttle will get yet another once-over from the orbital outpost's crew. If any of the inspections turn up signs of serious damage to Discovery, the shuttle astronauts would most likely have to take refuge on the station and wait until next month for another shuttle, Atlantis, to come to the rescue.
Assuming that the shuttle checks out OK, Discovery astronauts will take on three spacewalks while they are linked up with the station. During the initial spacewalk, repair procedures worked out after the Columbia tragedy will get their first practice run-through in orbit. Among the tools to be tested are a daub-on applicator for patching adhesive, a caulking gun for filling cracks and a series of patches that could be set in place with expansion bolts.
The other two spacewalks are aimed at replacing a balky guidance gyroscope on the station, and installing a storage platform for future construction jobs. The shuttle crew also will load up the station's bad gyroscope, as well as a troublesome oxygen generator and other items, for return to Earth.
Landing is due to occur before dawn on Aug. 7, at 5:46 a.m. ET.
Discovery's seven-member crew — led by Collins, who was the first woman to command a shuttle mission back in 1999 — trained more than two years for this flight. Collins had been due to lead a crew into space one month after Columbia, and she and her crewmates plan to pay tribute to Columbia's astronauts during this mission.
Columbia on their minds
Columbia and its crew were much in the minds of NASA workers, who said they would hold back on post-launch celebrations until Discovery safely ended its 12-day mission.
"Until that time, we're going to watch it, and take pride in what we've done, but know we're not done until we get the crew back," Neil Otte, chief engineer for the external fuel tank project, said during a pre-launch briefing.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said Discovery's mission would honor not only the Columbia's astronauts, but other space explorers as well: "Every space launch we do is a tribute to all those who have gone before — the crews who have died as well as the crews who have lived."
After the launch, Griffin asked reporters to take note of what they had seen: "the power and the majesty of the launch, of course, but also the competence and the professionalism, the sheer gall, the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team, that pulled this program out of the depths of despair two and a half years ago, and made it fly."
Griffin's predecessor as administrator, Sean O'Keefe, told MSNBC.com it was fitting that there was fresh leadership at NASA for the return to flight.
"This is the opening chapter of a new age of space exploration. ... It's an opening chapter toward fulfilling the aspirations that the Columbia crew dedicated themselves to," said O'Keefe, who left NASA five months ago to become chancellor of Louisiana State University.
Griffin said returning to flight was an absolute necessity if NASA was to complete construction of the space station by 2010, then retire the shuttle fleet and deploy a new generation of space vehicles for trips to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Hale agreed with that sentiment: "It's a tremendous step, and the first of many steps as we head out into the exploration of the solar system — back to the moon and on to Mars."
Tuesday's successful launch brought tears to the eyes of astronaut Dave Wolf, who flew up to Russia's Mir space station in 1997 after a similar controversy over safety. "Didn't that make you proud?" he asked. "I was struck unexpectedly hard."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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