NASA sends shuttle back into space after long pause
By Irene Klotz and Michael Christie
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – NASA successfully launched
space shuttle Discovery on Tuesday after a 2-1/2 year struggle
to rebuild the shuttle program following the fatal Columbia
The shuttle, carrying seven crew members, soared into
slightly hazy skies, leaving behind a trail of smoke and
flames, while the roar of its solid booster rockets rattled
windows and shook the ground across Cape Canaveral in Florida.
“On behalf of the many millions of people who believe so
deeply in what we do, good luck, Godspeed and have a little fun
up there,” NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew a
few minutes before liftoff at 10:39 a.m. EDT (1439 GMT).
“It is time for you to return to flight,” added Mark
Taffett, a shuttle test director. “Our hopes and prayers ride
with you. Godspeed and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
Discovery’s mission, under veteran astronaut Eileen
Collins, is to test new safety measures and heat shield repair
techniques introduced since sister ship Columbia disintegrated
over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.
Columbia’s wing had been damaged by falling foam insulation
on liftoff, and superheated atmospheric gases tore into the
breach when the shuttle came back to land 16 days later. Seven
NASA has spent more than $1 billion on safety upgrades
since then, and worked to correct what investigators called a
“broken safety culture” that was too dismissive of risk.
Discovery’s other main mission is to deliver several tons
of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station,
whose construction has been on hold since the remaining
three-shuttle fleet was grounded in the aftermath of Columbia.
The shuttle’s launch was delayed for two weeks while
engineers searched for the cause of an elusive problem with one
of the ship’s hydrogen fuel-level sensors. The sensor glitch
canceled Discovery’s first launch attempt on July 13.
During Tuesday’s countdown, however, all the sensors worked
perfectly. Even Florida’s normally fickle summer weather
cooperated and Discovery blasted off smoothly, its two solid
rocket boosters pouring out 6.5 million pounds (3 million kg)
of thrust and enough energy to light 87,000 homes for a day.
Crowds of onlookers, including first lady Laura Bush and
President Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, held their
breath during the critical first two minutes of flight, then
cheered when launch commentators announced that the shuttle had
safely separated from the boosters.
The shuttle arced over the Atlantic Ocean, and settled into
its planned preliminary orbit just under 9 minutes later after
reaching a speed of up to 17,400 mph (28,205 kph).
The launch was scrutinized by 112 cameras, and an array of
radars, sensors and other imaging equipment so that NASA can
assess how well the newly modified external fuel tank worked.
It was foam from the tank that damaged Columbia.
The shuttle crew’s first task will be to use a new 50-foot
(15-meter) extension to the spaceship’s robot arm to survey its
nose and the leading edges of its wings for damage.
Discovery’s launch was also monitored by Russian cosmonaut
Sergei Krikalev and U.S. astronaut John Phillips on the
International Space Station.
The shuttle, carrying its commander Collins, pilot Jim
Kelly, Japan’s Soichi Noguchi and astronauts Charles Camarda,
Steve Robinson, Andy Thomas and Wendy Lawrence, was scheduled
to reach the orbital outpost on Thursday for a week-long stay.
The shuttle’s return to flight after a long hiatus also
marks the beginning of the end for the aging spacecraft.
President Bush has instructed NASA to retire the shuttle
fleet in 2010, after completion of the space station, and to
design a new generation of space craft capable of returning
humans to the moon and of taking them to Mars and beyond.