- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - After two weather delays and last-minute foam trouble, Discovery and a crew of seven blasted off today on the first shuttle launch in a year, flying over objections from those within NASA who argued for more fuel-tank repairs.

The majestic shot - NASA’s first on Independence Day - was only the second shuttle flight since the Columbia was brought down more than three years ago by a chunk of insulation foam breaking off the fuel tank.

The foam problem resurfaced during last July’s flight of Discovery and again yesterday, keeping the space agency debating safety all the way up to the eve of liftoff.

Discovery thundered away from its seaside pad at 2:38 p.m.

Commander Steven Lindsey, an Air Force fighter pilot, was at the controls and aiming for a linkup in two days with the international space station. Earlier, he and his crew waved small American flags on their way to the rocketship.

“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 Cmdr. 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 yesterday whether Discovery would fly. A slice of foam, no bigger than a crust of bread, fell off an expansion joint on Discovery’s external fuel tank following Sunday’s delay.

Shuttle managers concluded last 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 on the end to get an up-close look at the joint where the foam came off, and found no evidence of further damage. NASA made sure there was no excessive ice buildup at that spot today; ice could be even more damaging than foam at liftoff.

“You could mail 10 of these things with the cost of a single first-class stamp,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said earlier on NBC’s “Today.” We’re talking about a very, very minor piece of foam here. … This is not an issue.”

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 launching Discovery on the 12-day station delivery mission, without first eliminating the lingering dangers from foam loss, considered probable and potentially catastrophic.

They were overruled by shuttle managers and, ultimately, by 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Griffin said in a weekend interview with The Associated Press.

He added: “It’s hardly the only thing that poses a risk to a space shuttle mission.”

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.

Many have speculated that if anything happens to Discovery or its five-man, two-woman crew, the shuttle program may well end with this mission. And President Bush’s plans for moon and Mars exploration could be put in jeopardy. NASA figures it will be nearly a week before it can decisively say whether Discovery was hit and damaged by foam during launch.

And it will be a week-and-a-half before engineers can conclude whether any pieces of space junk struck the shuttle in orbit and caused irreparable damage.

Last July, cameras caught a 1-pound slice of foam falling off Discovery’s fuel tank two minutes after liftoff, despite extensive repairs and analyses following the Columbia disaster.

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.

Riding aboard Discovery is German astronaut Thomas Reiter, who will move into the space station for a half-year stay. He carried a small German flag out to the launch pad.

Two astronauts, an American and a Russian, are already living on the station; Mr. Reiter will expand the size of the station crew to three for the first time since 2003.

Staffing was scaled back in the wake of the Columbia disaster because of the lack of shuttle supply flights.

Besides Lindsey and Reiter, Discovery is carrying pilot Mark Kelly; Michael Fossum and Piers Sellers, who will conduct at least two spacewalks at the station; Stephanie Wilson and Rockville, Md., native Lisa Nowak.

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