A Successful Launch for Discovery

The shuttle Discovery made a smooth and safe landing in California this morning, marking the first safe reentry to Earth after the Columbia tragedy more than two years ago.r.
The shuttle Discovery made a smooth and safe landing in California this morning, marking the first safe reentry to Earth after the Columbia tragedy more than two years ago.r.
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL, July 26 -- With a blinding flash of light and a deep, rumbling growl, the space shuttle Discovery arced into the heavens Tuesday, hoping to usher in a new era in human spaceflight and move NASA beyond the tragedy of the doomed Columbia.

After a virtually trouble-free countdown, Discovery roared off Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39B at 10:39 a.m. Eastern time, punched through a tiny cotton-candy cloud and soared into crystal-blue skies on its way into orbit 140 miles above Earth.

The only shadow over the long-postponed launch came with reports that the unprecedented array of cameras trained on the shuttle had seen what may have been a 1 1/2 -inch piece of thermal tile break off from an area near the forward landing-gear door. A larger object, perhaps a chunk of foam insulation, was seen falling from the external tank, apparently without striking the orbiter. Late in the day, shuttle managers said they will go ahead with scheduled inspections of the shuttle's exterior over the next three days, along with detailed analysis of the launch images, to assess whether any of the debris posed a "safety-of-flight issue."

"This was an extremely clean flight" despite the debris incidents, the flight operations manager, John Shannon, told reporters.

Two minutes into the flight, Discovery's two solid rocket boosters dropped away, and 6 1/2 minutes later the orbiter separated from the gigantic external fuel tank, an event captured for the first time in a spectacular color video made by a camera mounted on the tank as it began its plunge earthward.

Discovery, carrying mission commander Eileen Collins and six other astronauts, tucked into Earth orbit over the Indian Ocean, below and behind the international space station, beginning a two-day rundown to catch up with the station and dock with it.

The launch was the first shuttle mission since Columbia disintegrated during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003. The disaster marked a technical and emotional watershed for the U.S. space program and for NASA, which was obliged to spend 2 1/2 years redesigning much of its hardware and reevaluating its approach to shuttle safety.

"Take note of what you saw here today," NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin told reporters. "There was the power and majesty of the launch, of course, but also the confidence, professionalism, and the sheer gall and grittiness of the team that pulled this program out of the depths of despair."

More than 2,500 dignitaries, led by first lady Laura Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), her brother-in-law, attended the launch. Later, the first lady visited the launch control center to thank the team for "your hard work," saying, "You're inspiring everybody."

The launch team downed its traditional post-launch meal of beans and cornbread, reflecting on the long wait: "It was like the birth of a baby," engineer Arthur Graine said with a grin. "Instead of nine months, it's been 2 1/2 years."

Three hours after liftoff, Collins paid the team the ultimate compliment, telling Mission Control that her fourth spaceflight had "by far the smoothest ascent yet" and saying, "I know the folks back on Earth must feel pretty good right now."

Worried for weeks about having to scrub the launch because of bad weather, engineers were rewarded with a gorgeous, thunderstorm-free day. Also a no-show was the peculiar fuel-sensor malfunction that caused engineers to scrub Discovery's launch two weeks ago.

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