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Space shuttle delivers a feel-good Fourth

While spectators exulted over Discovery's spectacular Independence Day liftoff, NASA managers pored over video images showing several pieces of foam debris flying away from the shuttle after launch.
Girl takes a wave as space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral
Amber, 10, takes a wave in Jetty Park as space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.Carlos Barria / Reuters

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Discovery lifted off Tuesday on NASA's first Independence Day space shuttle launch — producing a swell of patriotism as well as some positive news about shuttle safety.

Discovery commander Steve Lindsey set the patriotic tone during the final minutes of the countdown, saying "I can't think of a better place to be on the Fourth of July." He promised to give observers "an up-close and personal look at the rocket's red glare."

The launch didn't disappoint on that score. After an on-time launch at 2:37:55 p.m. ET, the shuttle ascended on a pillar of fire and exhaust, arcing around a single cloud that passed over Kennedy Space Center.

Tuesday's sunny holiday weather came as a relief to launch managers, who had to postpone the launch on Saturday and Sunday due to threatening clouds.

"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," shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told reporters. "Great nations dare great things, and take risks along the way, and I can think of no better way to explore the space frontier than the way we set out today."

Consoles at Kennedy Space Center's launch control center were festooned with American flags — and Discovery's seven astronauts waved flags as they headed out to the launch pad. The six Americans carried the Stars and Stripes, while German astronaut Thomas Reiter held his country's tricolor.

Discovery's 12-day mission is aimed at testing safety modifications made since the shuttle's last flight, almost a year ago. The shuttle also will resupply the international space station, install new equipment on the station and leave Reiter behind as the station's third crew member.

Concern over flyaway foam
The day's celebratory air was capped by Hale's first assessment of the external fuel tank's performance — a review that was anxiously awaited, considering that foam loss from the tank during last year's launch led to a halt in shuttle flights until Tuesday.

More than 100 cameras followed Tuesday's launch from the ground, from the air and from the shuttle and tank itself — and NASA managers as well as journalists quickly started poring over the imagery.

"I think the tank performed very, very well indeed ... very pleased," Hale said at an evening review of the initial imagery. "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."

He acknowledged that the performance wasn't flawless: Bits of foam insulation were seen flying off the tank five times, including one occasion when a piece that may be larger than NASA's standard may have touched the orbiter, he said. But every occasion occurred after the 135-second mark, too late to do significant damage to the orbiter. "The really good news is that it happened late," Hale said.

The performance of the foam has been a key concern for NASA since the 2003 Columbia tragedy, when the loss of the shuttle and its crew was blamed on damage done by tank-foam debris. The tank was redesigned for Discovery's flight last year, then redesigned a second time when cameras spotted potentially hazardous foam loss.

This is the first flight to test the twice-redesigned tank. NASA's chief engineer and top safety official argued that this month's flight should be postponed until still other areas of the tank, known as ice/frost ramps, were redesigned as well. But the agency's administrator, Mike Griffin, sided with other experts who advised moving ahead with the current test flight.

Another foam concern surfaced on the day before the launch, after workers discovered that a 3-inch-long (7.5-centimeter-long) fragment of foam had broken off from Discovery's fuel tank during processing. Just hours before fueling the shuttle, NASA's mission management team determined that the loss of the fragment posed no additional risk.

Hale said he thought that the long debate over the tank led to a "great decision process," and that the imagery gathered during this flight would lead to an even better design.

The imagery also cleared up a mysterious sighting: Astronaut Mike Fossum reported seeing what he thought was a 4- or 5-foot-long strip of blanket insulation floating off into space. But once Hale and other mission managers saw video of the "strip," they instantly recognized that it was an ice formation that had come off the nozzle of one of the shuttle's main engines.

"It's incredible to me, but I've seen it so I know it's true, that the space shuttle main engines that burn hydrogen and oxygen at 6,000 degrees on the inside can form frost on the outside, because we circulate liquid hydrogen to cool the outside of the nozzle," Hale said.

In addition to the foam concerns, NASA dealt with a couple of other technical issues — including problems with circuit breakers for heaters on the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, as well as a faulty heater for one of the thrusters on the orbital maneuvering system. Mission managers determined that the heaters on the boosters wouldn't be needed, and that the crew could get along without the questionable maneuvering thruster if necessary.

"That doesn't appear to be a big issue," Hale said.

Yet another potential concern turned out to be not a big issue: During last year's launch, a vulture flew into the shuttle and was killed, leading NASA to draw up a plan for luring away or scaring away the vultures, which are a protected species.

"We executed our plan for the birds perfectly today," launch director Mike Leinbach said, drawing a chuckle from the journalists. "We didn't execute any birds. There were no birds over the vehicle at launch time."

Ambitious agenda
Discovery's mission agenda is ambitious — so ambitious that NASA aims to add a 13th day to the flight. Among the highlights:

  • Reiter will be dropped off to join the space station's current Expedition 13 crew members, NASA's Jeff Williams and Russia's Pavel Vinogradov. The move will make Reiter the first long-term crew member who is neither American nor Russian. "It adds, maybe, a little bit of internationality to the station," Reiter told NBC. His arrival will also mark the first time since 2003 that the station has had a crew of three. That additional crew time should also allow more science to be done on the station, he said.
  • More than 2 1/2 tons of supplies will be delivered to the station, including an oxygen generator that will eventually allow the station's occupancy to rise to six crew members. Almost as much old equipment and trash will be unloaded from the station for return to Earth.
  • Spacewalkers will repair a power-supply reel system for the station's robotic rail car, which was rendered essentially unusable last December when a cable was cut by accident. They'll also install a spare component for the station's cooling system.
  • One spacewalk will be devoted to testing a technique for inspecting the shuttle's underside for damage even if the shuttle isn't docked to the station. Astronauts Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum will take turns standing at the end of a 50-foot-long (15-meter-long) orbital boom attached to the shuttle's 50-foot-long robotic arm, and practicing the moves that would have to be made for inspection and even repair.
  • If the mission is extended by an extra day, as expected, yet another spacewalk would be devoted to testing tools that could be used for repairing the reinforced panels on the shuttle's most critical areas — the nose cone and the leading edges of the wings.
  • The sensor-tipped orbital inspection boom will be used to check the tiles in orbit, as it was during last year's flight. The space station's crew will also conduct a high-resolution photo survey of the shuttle's tiles before Monday's scheduled docking, just like last time. But this time, a similar survey will be done just before and after undocking, to learn more about potential damage to the shuttle from micrometeoroids or orbital debris during flight.