CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A patched-up Atlantis blasted off with seven astronauts yesterday on the first space shuttle flight of 2007, after months of bad luck and scandal at NASA that included a damaging hailstorm and a lurid love triangle.
The spaceship rose from its seaside launchpad with a roar and climbed into a clear and still-brightly lit sky at 7:38 p.m., setting a course for the International Space Station.
The countdown was nearly flawless, but it appeared that something fell from the tank more than two minutes into the ascent, several seconds after the solid rocket boosters separated from Atlantis. Falling debris from the tank poses the most danger to the shuttle from liftoff to around that point in the ascent.
Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said at a press conference that foam did fall off the tank, as expected, but that it happened too late in the ascent to be a problem. A preliminary analysis showed it didn’t strike the shuttle, he said.
“The tank performed in a magnificent way, despite having several thousand repairs to it,” Mr. Hale said. “(The debris) should not be a hazard that late in the flight.”
The shuttle smoothly settled into orbit around the Earth.
During the 11-day flight, Atlantis’ astronauts will deliver a new segment and a pair of solar panels to the orbiting outpost. They also will swap out a member of the space station’s crew.
The mission had been delayed for three months after a freak storm at the launch pad hurled golf-ball-size hail at Atlantis’ 154-foot fuel tank, putting thousands of pockmarks in its vital insulating foam and one of the orbiter’s wings.
“It took us awhile to get to this point, but the ship is in great shape,” launch director Mike Leinbach said just before liftoff.
Over the past few months, NASA also saw the arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in a purported plot to kidnap her rival for a shuttle pilot’s affections; a murder-suicide at the Johnson Space Center in Houston; and the derailment of a train carrying rocket-booster segments for future shuttle launches. More recently, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has come under fire for suggesting that global warming may not be a problem worth wrestling.
“We’ve had a tough six months for a number of different reasons,” Mr. Griffin told the Associated Press hours before the liftoff. “We’d love to have a textbook launch and a textbook mission. It would just make everybody feel good.”
NASA has not had a shuttle launch since December.
After the hailstorm, Atlantis was rolled back to the hangar, and the space agency decided to sand down and patch the gouge marks with foam rather than replace the entire tank.
The foam has been of paramount concern to NASA since the Columbia disaster in 2003, when a chunk of the insulating material broke off during liftoff and gashed a wing, allowing fiery gases to penetrate the shuttle during its return to Earth. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.
The hailstorm forced NASA to reduce the number of shuttle missions in 2007 from five to four.