Debris falls as shuttle lifts off
UP to six pieces of debris that could be foam insulation fell off Discovery's troublesome external fuel tank shortly after liftoff today.
The shuttle blasted off this morning on a pivotal mission for US space ambitions despite lingering concerns about safety three years after the Columbia tragedy.
NASA staff were quick to celebrate the take-off after two earlier launch attempts were scrapped.
But now officials will be assessing the consequences of the debris and whether the shuttle may have been damaged.
Columbia was doomed by a piece of foam insulation that came loose and pierced its heat shield during liftoff, causing the shuttle to break apart into a ball of fire as it returned to Earth on February 1, 2003. Seven astronauts died.
Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said of today's launch: "About two minutes and 47 seconds give or take (after the launch), we saw three perhaps four pieces come off." He said it was unclear whether it was foam or "something else".
"We also saw another piece or two come off at about four minutes 50 seconds," he told reporters at the Kennedy Space Centre.
Discovery launched in a cloud of white smoke, taking seven astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on a mission aimed at improving shuttle safety.
The shuttle's two rocket boosters successfully separated from the orbiter two minutes after launching from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
After two days of weather delays, it was third time lucky for the shuttle crew, and the launch went ahead as America celebrated Independence Day.
"Discovery, straight as an arrow," said launch commentator Bruce Buckingham.
NASA employees at the Kennedy Space Centre's launch control centre applauded and hugged each other as ground control announced the shuttle had reached orbit about nine minutes after blasting off.
NASA cleared the mission despite finding a small crack in foam insulation on the shuttle's external fuel tank on the eve of the launch. Officials said the fissure posed no threat to the shuttle.
It blasted off on time, at 2.38pm Florida time (4.38am AEST).
Speaking just before the final countdown, Commander Steven Lindsey said: "I cannot think of a better place to be here on the Fourth of July and on Independence Day to begin to launch.
"We hope that very soon we give you an up-close-and-personal look of 'the rockets red glare'," he said, quoting the US national anthem.
The two female and five male astronauts smiled broadly before boarding the shuttle and waved small American flags as they headed to the bus that took them to the launch pad before the first ever Independence Day liftoff.
The second shuttle mission to the ISS since the Columbia disaster will show whether modifications made to the fuel tank have succeeded.
Foam also peeled off Discovery's tank in the first post-tragedy launch last year, but the debris missed the shuttle.
Nevertheless, NASA had grounded the 25-year-old fleet until now to make further modifications.
NASA placed more than 100 cameras around Discovery's launch pad for today's launch to detect any loose debris. The ISS will also take pictures of the vessel's heat shield while it performs a backflip during approach.
The astronauts, led by Commander Lindsey, will test new procedures to boost safety as well as deliver critical equipment and supplies to the ISS.
They will also drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, of Germany, who will join the ISS's two other crew members for a long-term stay, and will undertake two space walks.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin stuck with his controversial decision to launch Discovery despite concerns over potentially damaging debris peeling off the orange-hued fuel reservoir.
During a flight readiness review, NASA's chief safety officer and top engineer called for a delay to redesign foam insulation on the fuel tank.
The two officials eventually backed the mission, however, after NASA said the seven astronauts could take refuge at the ISS and wait for a rescue mission should the shuttle suffer irreparable damage. – AFP