Launch A First For the Fourth

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, July 4 -- Space shuttle Discovery, trailing a tail of yellow fire and billowing gray smoke, launched into central Florida's dazzling summer sky Tuesday like an outsize Independence Day Roman candle.

After two weather delays over the weekend and questions about lost insulation foam from the orbiter's external fuel tank, Discovery enjoyed an incident-free countdown on its way to the first launch of a space shuttle on the Fourth of July.

Shuttle project manager N. Wayne Hale Jr. said the external tank "performed very well indeed." He said there were five instances of foam loss during launch, but "we saw nothing that gives us any concern about the health of the vehicle."

A report by astronaut Michael E. Fossum that heat shielding fabric had come loose from the orbiter was, Hale said, ice that drifted away from the nozzles of the shuttle's main engines, which are cooled with liquid hydrogen during launch.

"We have seen it come off several times," Hale said at a news conference. "You look at it, and you say, 'It's got to be fabric,' but it's clearly ice."

He said NASA engineers would continue analyzing launch photography and imagery over the next few days. In addition, a painstaking on-board inspection of the orbiter will consume most of the crew's first day in space Wednesday.

Hale told reporters that all the incidents of foam loss from the tank occurred at least 2 minutes 53 seconds after launch, well after what engineers regard as the danger period for damage to the orbiter. Impacts that occur less than a minute after launch do no harm because the shuttle has not built up enough speed, while impacts after 2 minutes 15 seconds have no effect because the atmosphere is so thin.

Videotape of the external tank showed that most of the debris incidents involved pieces of foam falling away in an almost spray-like pattern, and Hale said all but perhaps one fragment were smaller than the smallest piece that engineers believe could endanger the orbiter.

Launch day opened with a rain shower, but dawn brought beautiful sunshine and the welcome news that the chances of an on-time launch had increased overnight from 60 to 80 percent. Weather conditions changed from "red" early in the day to "green" for "go" by midmorning, and stayed that way through launch.

Mission Commander Steven W. Lindsey and the six other members of Discovery's crew, wearing their bright orange launch suits, left the crew's quarters shortly before 11 a.m. All except European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, a German national, waved U.S. flags. Reiter had a German flag.

A bit more than an hour later, crewmembers were strapped into their seats to await liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center's launchpad 39B. At 2:25 p.m., launch director Mike Leinbach polled his team on Discovery's readiness and heard nothing but "go." "The weather is beautiful," Leinbach radioed the crew. "America is ready to return the shuttle to flight. Good luck and Godspeed, Discovery."

"I can't think of a better place to be on the Fourth of July," Lindsey said.

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