- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — In a majestic Independence Day liftoff, Discovery and its crew of seven blasted into orbit yesterday on the first space shuttle launch in a year, flying despite objections from those within NASA who argued for more fuel tank repairs.

NASA’s first Fourth of July manned launch came after two weather delays and a new crack in foam insulation on the fuel tank. Shuttle managers said early video images showing small pieces of debris breaking away — and one striking the shuttle — were not troubling.

“The tank performed very, very well, indeed; very pleased,” shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said last night, five hours after liftoff. “As opposed to where we were last year, we saw nothing that gives us any kind of concern about the health of the crew or the vehicle.”

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said of the launch: “They don’t get much better than this.”

It was Mr. Griffin who chose to go ahead with the launch despite concerns from the space agency’s safety officer and chief engineer about foam problems that have dogged NASA since Columbia was doomed by a flyaway chunk of insulation 3 years ago.

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

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 struck the belly of Discovery, but NASA assured the astronauts that it was not a concern because of the timing.

Discovery was so high by then, Mr. Hale said, that there wasn’t enough air to accelerate the pieces into the shuttle and cause damage. All but one of the pieces were small and all came off well after the two-minute, 15-second point of causing damage, Mr. Hale said. NASA had expected minor foam loss.

“It’s all very minor. It’s all very late,” Mr. Hale said. “So at the end of the day, I’m very pleased with the performance of the tank. This is a great improvement from where we were.”

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 protect the shuttle, they said, but Mission Control told them that it likely was ice and that a similar observation was made during Discovery’s flight a year ago. “Wow, that’s real good news,” said shuttle commander Col. Steven Lindsey. Mr. Hale later confirmed that it was ice.

Mr. 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 Mr. Hale, who was wearing a patriotic tie.

Col. Lindsey, an Air Force fighter pilot, was at the spacecraft’s controls and was aiming for a linkup tomorrow 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 Michael D. Leinbach said just before liftoff.

One of the seven crew members 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.

Besides Col. Lindsey and Mr. 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 today, they will use a 50-foot inspection boom to view the shuttle for damage. They also will repair the space station and deliver much-needed supplies.

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