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Independence Day liftoff for Discovery

story.camera.tank.jpg
An onboard camera shows Discovery's external fuel tank in flight.

FACT BOX

CHANGES SINCE JULY 2005

• Two long wedge-shape pieces of foam insulation were removed from the external fuel tank.

• Sensors have been added to monitor stress, temperature and acceleration during launch.

• Foam shields covering metal clips on the fuel tank have been extended.

• Electric heaters installed before Discovery flew in 2005 have been rewired.

• Radar systems will track the launch in addition to land- and air-based cameras and video recorders.

• A sound system has been installed to scare away birds.

• More than 5,000 fillers between the heat-resistant tiles on the shuttle's belly were replaced after two slipped out on the last flight, triggering an unplanned spacewalk.

• Stronger windows were installed in the crew cabin, and Discovery has new tires and improved landing gear.

-- Source: Reuters

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Programs
Kennedy Space Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- The space shuttle Discovery and its seven-member crew roared into space Tuesday afternoon -- NASA's first manned launch on Independence Day and its second shuttle flight since the Columbia accident of 2003.

Pieces of foam came off the external fuel tank when the shuttle lifted off. NASA officials did not yet have information about its significance.

"And liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery -- returning to the space station, paving the way for future missions and beyond," said NASA launch commentator Bruce Buckingham. (Watch the launch -- 3:35 )

" ... As it turns out, patience was a virtue -- the third time's the charm," Buckingham said.

There were hugs and handshakes in NASA's Mission Control as Discovery made its way into orbit.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon a very relived-looking group of NASA officials took time to thank all those involved with the shuttle program.

"They don't get much better than this, and we are happy," said NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

Program manager Wayne Hale said that about 2:40 seconds into flight three or four pieces of foam came off the external fuel tank. And another two pieces came off at about 4:50 seconds in.

"Both of those are interesting because they are after the time we are concerned about aerodynamic transport causing damage to the shuttle tiles," Hale said.

Hale said his team will take the next few hours to go over the launch video.

Hale said last week that NASA engineers have learned a lot about foam dynamics in the past year, but there is no way to stop the foam from flying off the tank.

"When we have it [the data] we will share it with you," Griffin told reporters.

Investigators blamed a 1.6-pound piece of foam insulation falling from the external fuel tank for the damage that caused the loss of Discovery's sister ship Columbia. All seven astronauts aboard the shuttle died when it broke up on re-entry over Texas in February 2003.

NASA spent nearly 2 1/2 years redesigning the tank, but during Discovery's mission last year a 1-pound piece of foam broke loose from the external tank, just missing the orbiter.

Plans call for a 12-day mission to deliver supplies to the international space station and drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, of Germany, who will join the Expedition 13 crew members already there.

NASA mission specialists Mike Fossum, Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson are on their first flights into space.

Astronauts Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum will conduct two spacewalks to test a new shuttle robotic arm and to repair a piece of equipment outside the space station.

They might also do a third spacewalk to test repair techniques on the shuttle's thermal protection system -- that would add a day to the mission.

NASA decided to go ahead with the launch after finding a pencil-size crack in the foam insulation around the shuttle's fuel tank on Monday.

"It all looks fine, and the structure is in good shape," Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier told reporters Monday evening.

The astronauts were all smiles as they suited up Tuesday morning.

Shuttle commander Steve Lindsey appeared relaxed, shaking a crew assistant's hand before entering the cockpit where he was strapped into his seat for the ride into space.

Nowak was the last to take her seat, and the hatch was sealed at 12:29 p.m.

Discovery rocketed toward space at 2:38 p.m.

NASA had delayed the launch Saturday and Sunday because of bad weather.

Tuesday's conditions gave NASA its best opportunity for launch. Crosswinds at the shuttle landing facility were "brisk" but within the limit for a safe return-to-launch-site abort landing, according to NASA mission control and its weather team.

Earlier Tuesday, in the course of the latest inspections, a circuit breaker in the shuttle's backup heating system was found to be not working, NASA officials said.

However, the agency decided not to send a team to switch it out, because the main system is functioning and officials feel comfortable flying as-is.

Narrow crack

The launch was threatened Monday after an inspection found a 4- to 5-inch crack in the external fuel tank's foam insulation.

The cracked insulation covered a bracket that connects the liquid oxygen feed line to shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank.

Engineers believe the problem stemmed from a buildup of frozen condensation that crushed a small piece of foam, Deputy Program Manager John Shannon told reporters earlier Monday. The crack was discovered during an inspection Sunday evening, NASA said.

When engineers went to inspect it, they found a .0057-pound, 3-inch piece of foam had "pinched off."

Even so, Shannon said, had that piece fallen off during launch, it wouldn't have damaged the orbiter.

"It turns out there is more foam on this strut than is really needed for its intended purposes," Gerstenmaier said. "I think it would not have gotten as much attention prior to Columbia as it is getting now," Shannon said. "I think it's a very good thing that we have this sensitivity and that we're looking this closely at the vehicle."

Safety concerns

NASA's decision to resume shuttle flights this summer is not without controversy.

In the weeks leading up to the launch, two NASA officials, chief engineer Chris Scolese and chief safety officer Bryan O'Connor, gave a "no go" for the launch.

Griffin called the disagreements about the repairs a good sign that the culture at NASA has changed. The agency was faulted by the Columbia investigation board for having a conformity of opinion.

"I personally want every engineer to express the best opinion that they can give us," Griffin said.

He and top senior officials took into consideration O'Connor's and Scolese's concerns but concluded that if falling foam damages Discovery, engineers will know about it, and the crew can take refuge on the space station and wait for a rescue mission.

Griffin said he wants to fly now because the shuttle program is slated to end in 2010, and NASA is committed to flying at least 16 missions to complete the space station. He said he worries that delays now will lead to dangerous schedule pressure later.

CNN's Miles O'Brien, Kate Tobin, Marsha Walton, Jason Meucci and Peggy Mihelich contributed to this report.

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