Shuttle returns to space
NASA examining video of debris spotted during liftoff
From Thom Patterson
Video shows debris falling from the external tank as Discovery ascends from launch pad.
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- Discovery roared into orbit Tuesday in NASA's first shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster, and afterward engineers began evaluating pictures of falling debris to determine the chances of another mishap.
A new battery of cameras trained on the shuttle during launch showed a small piece of debris falling from the underside of the orbiter, which NASA officials say could have come from a tile near a door covering the nose landing gear.
But NASA's flight operations manager, John Shannon, said it was too soon to determine the source of the debris, how large any possible defect might be and whether it poses any safety threat for the spacecraft.
"We did not come into this flight expecting to eliminate" all falling debris, he said at an evening news briefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. "But we knew that we had the tools available to us to characterize it."
He said the initial estimate of the debris showed it could be about 1.5 inches.
In addition to the possible piece of tile, video showed a piece of debris falling from the external fuel tank as it separated from the orbiter, Shannon said.
The piece did not strike the shuttle, he said.
Video also showed the fuel tank's nose cone hitting a bird about 2.5 seconds after liftoff, apparently without damage, he said.
Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in February 2003, and investigators blamed debris hitting the spacecraft during liftoff for damage that led to the disaster. All seven Columbia crew members were killed.
In response to the subsequent investigation, NASA overhauled its safety culture, including steps to minimize the amount and size of debris during ascent.
In a departure from previous liftoffs, 107 ground and aircraft cameras monitored Discovery for possible damage from falling debris.
'Great day' for NASA
Under a blue sky, the 114th shuttle flight lifted off at 10:39 a.m. ET, as scheduled.
"Liftoff of space shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond," said George Diller, the voice of shuttle launch control.
The launch followed days of troubleshooting to fix a faulty fuel sensor in Discovery's external tank that led to cancellation of a launch July 13.
NASA said no sign of the fuel sensor problem emerged. The space agency said it had tightened the electrical grounding on the fuel gauge sensors and made other adjustments. (Full story)
During a post-launch news conference, top NASA officials praised the liftoff.
"The mood was just giddy," shuttle launch director Michael Leinbach, who watched the liftoff from the space center's control room, told reporters. "People were slapping each other on the back."
"My heart has been in my throat all morning," said deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale. "It's been a great day."
Commander Eileen Collins described the ascent as smooth and the crew as feeling great.
"I couldn't ask for a better flight," she said.
"Take note of what you saw here," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters. "The power and the majesty of the launch, of course, but also the competence and the professionalism, the sheer gall, the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team that pulled this program out of the depths of despair."
Among the dignitaries present to witness the launch were first lady Laura Bush and her brother-in-law, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Thank you for inspiring everyone in our country and around the world," the first lady told NASA employees afterward.
President Bush watched the launch from White House, according to a spokesman, and thanked the shuttle team in a statement.
"This flight is an essential step toward our goal of continuing to lead the world in space science, human space flight and space exploration," Bush said.
About 10 miles from the launch pad, scores of people camped out overnight along the Banana River to watch the liftoff.
"I am just overwhelmed right now," said Tammy Smith, 23, of Morgan City, Louisiana. (Full story)
The mood at NASA, however, was tempered by memories of the loss of Columbia and concern for Discovery's return, scheduled for August 7.
NASA relayed a message from Collins, who thanked the NASA team on the ground and saluted Columbia's crew.
"We reflect on the last shuttle mission, the great ship Columbia and her inspiring crew," Collins said before her crew retired for the night.
Battery of tests
One of the new cameras, on the external fuel tank, captured the unprecedented image of the orbiter separating from the tank and turning away toward space.
Two high-altitude aircraft also took video with cameras and telescopes.
The two debris-shedding incidents under investigation were captured by a camera on the external fuel tank.
Shannon said space shuttles have been known to shed tiles without safety consequences.
Because of the additional photography, "I fully expected we would see things we hadn't seen in the past," he said, describing the liftoff overall as "extremely clean."
Discovery's crew is scheduled to test a battery of tools and techniques NASA engineers developed after the loss of Columbia to inspect the spacecraft's heat-resistant exterior tiles.
On Wednesday, the crew was to arise at 12:39 a.m. ET after an eight-hour rest break and survey the wings and nose cap using a new orbital boom sensor system -- a 50-foot robotic arm tipped with cameras and other instruments.
Discovery's mission takes it to the international space station Thursday to deliver supplies and conduct repairs. As the orbiter approaches, the station's crew will also photograph Discovery to look for any damage.
By Sunday, NASA managers will have enough information to decide whether repairs are needed and whether they are possible, Shannon said.
In the event a spacecraft is too badly damaged to repair, the crew can take refuge in the space station until a mission is launched to rescue them.
CNN's Miles O'Brien, Marsha Walton, Kate Tobin and Geneen Pipher contributed to this report.
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