July 4, 2006

Space shuttle Discovery launched on critical mission

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle
Discovery blasted off from its seaside Florida launch pad on
Tuesday on a do-or-die mission for NASA's beleaguered shuttle
program and the half-built International Space Station.

The shuttle and its seven-member crew lifted off at 2:38
p.m. EDT (1838 GMT) following two postponements over the
weekend because of poor weather at the Kennedy Space Center.

Five hours after launch, NASA managers had preliminary
answers to concerns about the shuttle's twice-modified fuel
tank and its foam insulation, which triggered the 2003 Columbia

"We saw nothing that gives us any kind of concerns or any
cause that it would not be safe to fly the next tank," shuttle
program manager Wayne Hale told reporters.

"It did not perform flawlessly," he added.

Engineers will continue to assess pictures and video of the
launch that show several small pieces of foam insulation
popping off the fuel tank. However, all the incidents occurred
after the shuttle was high enough in the atmosphere that the
debris posed no risk to the shuttle, Hale said.

Shuttle managers have warned for weeks that the shuttle's
fuel tank, which was blamed for the 2003 Columbia accident,
would continue to shed debris, but that no pieces would be
large enough to damage the shuttle in case of impact.

Of the pieces seen flying away from Discovery's tank, only
one might be larger than predictions, Hale said.

Imagery experts also determined that a large chunk of
debris that Discovery astronaut Mike Fossum originally thought
might be one of the shuttle's insulating blankets actually was
ice that had formed inside the main engine nozzles and was of
no concern.

NASA needs a successful mission to resume construction of
the planned $100 billion space station, a project sponsored by
16 nations. Assembly of the outpost has been on hold since the
Columbia disaster.


NASA had hoped to resume station construction last year
following the first post-Columbia mission but the shuttle's
fuel tank, like the one on Columbia, shed large pieces of
insulating foam during launch. Managers grounded the fleet
again for repairs.

Columbia was destroyed when a 1.67-pound (756-gram) chunk
of foam broke off the fuel tank and smashed into the ship's
left wing. The damage was undetected until after Columbia broke
apart 16 days later as it flew through the atmosphere, killing
all seven astronauts aboard.

Another accident or serious problem on the current shuttle
mission could ground the fleet permanently, but Griffin decided
to proceed with the launch over the objections of his chief
engineer and head of safety who argued for additional
modifications to the tank.

Delaying Discovery's launch, Griffin said, would put too
much pressure on the shuttle program, which needs to fly 16
missions to the station to complete construction before 2010.

On Wednesday, the Discovery crew will begin detailed
examinations of their ship's heat shield for signs of damage
from debris impacts.

NASA has spent about $1.3 billion fixing the shuttle's fuel
tank and developing other safety upgrades since the Columbia

Shuttle commander Steve Lindsey, 45, pilot Mark Kelly, 42,
and mission specialists Fossum, 48, Lisa Nowak, 43, Stephanie
Wilson, 39, and British-born American Piers Sellers, 51, waved
small American flags as they headed from their quarters to the
launch pad, marking the U.S. Independence Day.

Thomas Reiter, 48, of Germany, waved a German flag. He will
be the first European to live on the space station and is
scheduled to return home in December.