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Discovery Gets US Back Into Space

STS 114
by Patrick Moser
Cape Canaveral (AFP) Jul 26, 2005
Discovery blasted off Tuesday carrying seven astronauts on the first US shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster in 2003, while NASA investigated debris that fell off during liftoff.

Discovery went safely into orbit, but the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) was inspecting images which appeared to show a piece of a tile and another unknown object falling off separately during the first two minutes of the ascent.

Minutes before the liftoff, orbiter test director Mark Taffet told the crew: "It's time for us to return to flight. Godspeed and we will see you in a couple of weeks."

Amidst cheers and some tears from ground experts who have been working for two and a half years to get the shuttle back into space, Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a thunderous blast of smoke and fire, and arced into the sky.

The agency said it was happy with the launch, despite the video of what appeared to be debris falling off the shuttle as it rose towards its orbit. Engineers were working to rule out any kind of repeat of the problem that caused the Columbia tragedy on February 1, 2003.

NASA said its experts would meet on Wednesday morning to study the preliminary reports of what it called "ascent debris events." They stressed that it was not unusual for some material to come off the shuttle as it roars into space.

NASA flight operations manager John Shannon said the piece of tile was believed to be about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) in size and appeared to have come off the right landing gear on the nose.

The origin of the debris shown in a separate video was unknown but it appeared to fall away without touching the shuttle as the booster rockets broke away.

"We are going frame by frame through the imagery," Shannon told the briefing.

"It is too early," Shannon said when asked if there was a danger to the shuttle. "I have to understand exactly what we have. We have to walk through the whole process methodically."

More than 100 cameras on the ground and two planes in the air monitored Discovery's rise. As Discovery reached orbit, Commander Eileen Collins tipped the shuttle slightly so the crew could see the external tank as it was jettisoned.

NASA quickly told Collins about the debris and hopes that experts would have more information on Wednesday.

Once Discovery approaches the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday, Collins will turn the orbiter around so the ISS crew can take photographs of its underside to help determine whether the shuttle's thermal protection system suffered any damage.

Before the crew went to sleep, Collins transmitted a message back to ground control thanking NASA engineers for their efforts in re-activating the shuttle program.

"As our crew looks back at our beautiful planet and then outwards towards the unknown of space we feel the importance, today more than anytime, of space exploration to all those who are living on Earth," she said, also paying tribute to Columbia crew who died when their shuttle broke up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

A piece of insulation foam fell from Columbia's external tank, causing a gash in the wing that allowed superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle.

The shuttle fleet has been grounded since then amidst painstaking inquiries into the cause of the disaster and ways to put the faults right.

"Today mother nature smiled on us and I think the Columbia crew smiled on us," said Bill Readdy, NASA's assistant administrator for space operations.

During the 12-day mission, Discovery will take supplies to the ISS and the crew will perform some risky operations designed to test new safety procedures.

During one of three planned spacewalks on the Discovery, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and his US counterpart Stephen Robinson will test repair techniques adopted after the Columbia disaster.

They will test the use of toxic chemicals to repair the shuttle, but will abort the walk if the materials turn out to be too dangerous to handle in space.

NASA manager Readdy hailed what he called "the sheer gall, the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team that pulled this program out of the depths of despair two and a half years ago and made it fly."

President George W. Bush also hailed the return of the shuttle.

"This flight is an essential step toward our goal of continuing to lead the world in space science, human space flight, and space exploration."

Asked whether the president still believed in eventually sending a crew to Mars, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that was the "long-term mission" and that "today's launch is an important first step to put us back on track."

All rights reserved. � 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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NASA Says Discovery Ready For Launch
Cape Canaveral (AFP) Jul 26, 2005
NASA insisted Discovery was ready for launch Tuesday despite an earlier postponement, but rain could cause another delay in the first space shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster. "Our flight teams are ready, our flight crew is ready for a successful mission and safe return home," Pete Nickolenko, NASA's test director, said on Monday.

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