CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Discovery and seven astronauts blasted into orbit yesterday on the United States' first manned space shot since the 2003 Columbia disaster, ending a painful, 2-year shutdown devoted to making the shuttle less risky and NASA more safety conscious.
At stake were not only the lives of the astronauts, but also the United States' pride in its technological prowess, the fate of the U.S. space program and the future of space exploration itself.
"Our long wait may be over. So 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," launch Director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before liftoff.
Space-program employees and relatives of both the Discovery and Columbia crews watched nervously as the shuttle rose from its pad at 10:39 a.m., climbed into a hazy midsummer sky, skirted two decks of clouds and headed out over the ocean in the most scrutinized launch in NASA history.
Two chase planes and more than 100 cameras documented the ascent from every possible angle to capture any sign of flying debris of the sort that doomed the last flight.
About two hours later, after Discovery had settled into orbit, Discovery commander Eileen Collins radioed back: "We know that the folks back on the planet Earth are just feeling great right now, and our thanks to everybody for all the super work that's been done over the past 2 years to get us flying again."
Mission Control replied by promising to bring the astronauts home safely.
Video showed what appeared to be a large piece of debris flying off the external fuel tank two minutes into the flight. The object did not seem to hit the orbiter. Footage also showed what might have been at least two light-colored objects flying off Discovery as the shuttle cleared the launchpad.
Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale raised the possibility that the light-colored objects were harmless pieces of paper that protect Discovery's thrusters before launch. But he insisted it was too soon to say what the cameras may have picked up, and he gave assurances the multitude of images will be examined frame by frame in the coming hours and days.
"No telling what might be there or what's not there -- we hope nothing," he said.
The fuel gauge that thwarted a launch attempt two weeks ago worked properly before and during the liftoff, and the countdown was remarkably smooth. If the sensors had acted up before liftoff, the space agency had been prepared to bend its safety rules to get the shuttle flying.