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NASA: No concern on fallen foam

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) -- At least five pieces of foam -- the material that broke off and doomed the space shuttle Columbia -- flaked off Discovery after its launch Tuesday, but the particles broke loose after a critical time period, said shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

"The shuttle (Discovery) performed very, very well. We saw nothing that gave us concern or pause that we wouldn't be safe to fly the next mission," Hale said. "The tank performed very well, especially early in the flight in the lower atmosphere."

After a crack was discovered in Discovery's foam covering, there was a question as to whether Discovery would launch Tuesday -- the Fourth of July.

NASA engineers decided the problem caused no risk to the seven astronauts on board. The foam insulates the exterior fuel tank to prevent ice from forming. (Watch the launch -- 3:35

The particles that fell from Discovery were observed in images of the flight, Hale said. He told reporters Tuesday night that NASA has only reviewed 30 or 40 percent of the pictures, and was still collecting data. Some of the images will be available Wednesday, he said.

"Every piece of foam that came off was after the critical time, and we can confirm all but one of those was smaller than the mass that we worry about."

Tuesday's foam fell off at 2 minutes, 53 seconds and 4 minutes, 45 seconds.

"Two minutes, 15 seconds is our bingo time. Anytime after that, we're not worried," Hale said.

Foam shedding has been a problem for NASA, beginning with the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, when foam hit a wing, causing the shuttle to disintegrate on reentry, killing all seven astronauts.

In addition to the five pieces of foam that separated from the shuttle, Hale said NASA has identified two other issues requiring further study: a shim that acts as a separator between tiles broke off, and a camera lens got water on it.

A piece of ice broke off the shuttle about 15 minutes into the flight, but such occurrences are not unexpected, Hale said. There was a problem with the shuttle's cooling system, but it was being resolved.

"It's incredible to me the space shuttle main engine can form frost on the outside when hot inside," Hale said.

He said in an early conversation with the crew, there was "very little to talk about because the orbiter performed so well."

Discovery was to have launched Saturday, but bad weather that day and Sunday delayed the effort.

Improvement

Winds were on the high end of acceptable for the liftoff, but the sunny afternoon was otherwise fine for Discovery's 32nd trip into space. It is just the second shuttle launch since the Columbia disaster.

"This is a great improvement from where we were," Hale said.

The shuttle reached the lower limits of space a little over five minutes into the flight -- a first for three members of the crew.

"A smooth ride to orbit for the shuttle Discovery on what is expected to be a 13-day mission," said NASA launch commentator Bruce Buckingham. "As it turns out, patience was a virtue -- the third time's the charm."

NASA mission specialists Mike Fossum, Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson are on their first flights into space. Discovery is serving as a space taxi for mission specialist Thomas Reiter of Germany, who will remain on board the space station at the end of the shuttle's mission.

Commander Steve Lindsey is making his fourth shuttle flight, while pilot Mark Kelly and mission specialist Piers Sellers are on their second.

Sellers and Fossum will conduct two space walks to test a new shuttle robotic arm and to repair a piece of equipment outside the space station. They might also do a third space walk to test repair techniques on the shuttle's thermal protection system. The extra walk would add a day to the mission.

The astronauts' first full day in space on Wednesday will include a remote video inspection of the shuttle wings' leading edges and other parts of the craft's thermal protection system for possible damage.

Docking with the space station is expected Thursday.

'All looks fine'

Mission managers decided Monday to go ahead with the launch after further examination of a pencil-sized crack in the foam insulation around the shuttle's fuel tank.

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

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 felt comfortable flying the shuttle as-is.

The cracked insulation found Monday covered a bracket that connects the liquid oxygen feed line to shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank. A piece of foam about the size of a slice of bread broke off along the crack, Gerstenmaier said.

"The shedding that was observed here comes off as a result of expanding and contracting the fuel tank as it is loaded with fuel," NASA administrator Mike Griffin told CNN's Miles O'Brien Tuesday.

"Those stresses are always there every time we tank and detank," Griffin added. "The foam which can come off has come off. If it had come off in flight it would be no issue."

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 Monday.

CNN producer Marsha Walton contributed to this report

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