July 4, 2006

Successful Liftoff: Discovery Soars to Orbit on July 4th

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA gave the shuttle Discovery a majestic Fourth of July send-off and said early signs showed the spacecraft to be 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.

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 2:38 p.m EDT.

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 seemed to strike the belly of Discovery, but NASA assured the seven astronauts it was no concern because of the timing.

Shuttle program manager Wayne 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.

"That is the very raw, preliminary data," he said. "It will be a while before we get a complete picture of what happened during the ascent."

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 later told them it may have been 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 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.

Lindsey, an Air Force fighter pilot, was at Discovery's controls and aiming for a Thursday linkup with the international space station.

"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.

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

"If foam hits the orbiter and doesn't damage it, I'm going to say ho-hum because I know we're going to release foam. The goal is to make sure that the foam is of a small enough size that I know we're not going to hurt anything," Griffin said in a weekend interview with The Associated Press.

"It's hardly the only thing that poses a risk to a space shuttle mission," he said.

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 Discovery during launch.

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.

A Look at Discovery's Seven Astronauts

Discovery's crew of seven - five men and two women - includes three rookies. But their commander, Steve Lindsey, is an old hand at space flight, having flown three previous missions.

One of the crew, Thomas Reiter of Germany, is with the European Space Agency, and he will be left behind at the international space station for a six-month stay with the station's other two residents.

Other noteworthy personal details about the crew:

_Six are parents. Among them they have a total of 16 children.

_One will be the second African-American woman in space.

_One will be the first Texas Aggie in space.

Here is a more detailed look at each astronaut:


U.S. Air Force Col. Steve Lindsey, commander

Age: 45

Hometown: Born in Arcadia, Calif. but considers Temple City, Calif. his hometown

Family: Married, three children

After flying three missions, and with a long line of astronauts back in Houston who have never gone to space, Lindsey said he realizes Discovery's flight to the international space station may be the last of his decade-long career.

"It will be sad, probably, the last time I walk off the shuttle," Lindsey said. "But you know, I'll be going on to something else and I'm OK with it."

Lindsey is no stranger to high-profile missions. He was the pilot of the Discovery flight that returned John Glenn to space in 1998. That flight drew so much attention that "I don't think I've seen anything like it," Lindsey said.

Lindsey came to NASA in 1995 after 13 years in the Air Force. He is a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, holds a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and was a test pilot.

He said he believes NASA made the appropriate improvements to the shuttle's external fuel tank, where the risk of foam insulation snapping off during launch remains. The foam poses the threat of damage to the spacecraft - the same problem that brought down Columbia. The issue has been openly debated in recent weeks, and some NASA safety experts contend more changes should be made before the next launch. But they were overruled by NASA head Michael Griffin.

Lindsey said he welcomed the debate. But enough talk.

"We've done all that testing," Lindsey said. "It's time to fly."


U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Kelly, pilot

Age: 42

Hometown: Born in Orange, N.J., but considers West Orange, N.J. his hometown

Family: Unmarried, two daughters

Unlike some members of the class of 1996, which had about twice the average astronaut class size, Kelly already has a shuttle mission under his belt. He served as the pilot on Endeavour in 2001 during the 12th shuttle flight to the international space station.

Kelly, who holds a master's degree in aeronautical engineering at U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, will be Discovery's pilot too. His identical twin brother, Scott, also is an astronaut.

Kelly will direct Sellers and Fossum during their spacewalks.

"My first time, in 2001, I realized how risky the space shuttle is," Kelly said. "I was well aware of the risks, and it makes it more real for me this time because of an accident that killed seven of my friends."

Kelly wants be back from the mission in time for his youngest daughter's 9th birthday, which is July 18.

"She'll be upset if I'm in space for her birthday," Kelly said.


Mission specialist Michael Fossum

Age: 48

Hometown: Born in Sioux Falls, S.D., but grew up in McAllen, Texas

Family: Married, four children

Fossum became the first Aggie in space.

The Texas A&M graduate was bringing to the space station a university flag which he will bring back for his alma mater. But he may want to hide it from fellow crew mate Stephanie Wilson, who went to graduate school at the University of Texas.

"I kind of wish I was the third Aggie in space," said Fossum, who has master's degrees in systems engineering and space science. "It's not like me to make a big fuss about this."

Fossum not only is flying for the first time in space, but he is making his first spacewalk. The rookie will make at least two excursions outside the space station with Sellers to test inspection and repair techniques on the shuttle. A third spacewalk is possible.

Fossum has been an astronaut for eight years but his service with NASA stretches back to the early 1980s when he went to work at Johnson Space Center after completing graduate work at the Air Force Institute of Technology. It took him several tries to join the astronaut corps.

As a child, he cherished a book on the Apollo program and wrote in it, "I too am going to the stars." He rediscovered the book a few years ago in a box of childhood items and thought, "My goodness. Look what you wrote!"


U.S. Navy Cmdr. Lisa Nowak, mission specialist

Age: 43

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Family: Married, three children

Nowak's son was in preschool when she joined the astronaut corps in 1996. The 14-year-old boy was about to start high school and she had yet to fly in space. But that changed Saturday.

"It never got to the point where I was frustrated, upset or said, 'Hey, why isn't it my turn?'" said Nowak, who also has 4-year-old twin girls. "I was always happy with what was coming and what I was doing."

That consisted of working as a communicator with shuttle crews at Mission Control, going to Canada for robotics arm training for the space station and traveling to Japan to work with its space agency's robotics operations during the early years of the space station.

Nowak, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who has a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, will apply her expertise in robotics by inspecting Discovery for any damage using a robotic arm, along with Wilson.

Other astronauts have advised the first-time space-flyer to take time to enjoy the view.

"They told me, 'Make sure you take a chance to look out the window and look at the beautiful Earth and take some pictures,'" Nowak said.


Mission specialist Stephanie Wilson

Age: 39

Hometown: Boston

Family: Unmarried

Wilson may be a Harvard graduate, but she got her master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, home of the Longhorns and sworn enemies of Fossum's Aggies.

"I'm trying to figure out how I can collect all of the Aggie items so they don't appear (in photos)," Wilson said.

Along with Nowak, Wilson will operate the shuttle's 50-foot robotic arm, attached to a 50-foot boom, during inspections for any damage to Discovery.

"It's very difficult to know where all parts of the arm and boom are at any particular time," said Wilson, who will be the second African-American woman in space. "That sometimes becomes the tricky part."

Wilson said there shouldn't be a problem with three spaceflight rookies in the crew.

"In the early shuttle days, they had to fly all rookies on some early flights, and they did fine," she said.


Mission specialist Piers Sellers

Age: 51

Hometown: Crowborough, Sussex, United Kingdom

Family: Married, two children

Sellers already is scheduled to lead two spacewalks during Discovery's mission to the space station. But he's hoping Fossum and he can squeeze in an additional one to test out a new material for repairing cracked thermal tiles on the shuttle.

"The engineering team has worked this to death," Sellers said. "They really want to check out this material and the only way to check it out is in space."

Sellers performed three spacewalks for construction tasks during his only other trip to the space station aboard space shuttle Atlantis in October 2002. He holds a doctorate in biometeorology from Leeds University in the United Kingdom and did computer modeling of the climate system before becoming a U.S. citizen and joining NASA in 1996.

"Our goal is really to reset the program back to where it should be," Reiter said of the mission. "If we manage to do that as an agency, then it will be a great success."


European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter

Age: 48

Hometown: Frankfurt, Germany

Family: Married, two sons

Reiter's wife and two sons, ages 14 and 8, have packed him a surprise package which he isn't supposed to open until he begins his six-month stay on the international space station.

"You can imagine I'm curious to see what they got for me, what I'm getting at the space station," Reiter said.

Reiter is no stranger to long stays in space since he spent six months in the mid-1990s on Russia's Mir Space Station, where he also performed two spacewalks. The former test pilot has a master's degree in aerospace technology from Armed Forces University in Neubiberg and joined the European Space Agency's astronaut corps in 1992.

He will return the international space station to a three-man crew for the first time since the Columbia accident and become the first European to have an extended stay on the orbiting space lab.

How can he spend another six months away from his family?

"Almost every colleague I talk to has been infected by space. When they come back it seems to be increased, which is the same for me," Reiter said. "Experiencing zero-gravity is fantastic ... I have never slept as well as I did in space because ... you're just floating."


On the Net:

NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov