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 11/2-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 61/2 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 21/2 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 21/2 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.
With the launch drama behind it, NASA turned its focus to the primary purpose of Discovery's mission -- to determine the worth of the extensive redesigns and changes made to enhance the shuttles' safety.
"These are test flights," Griffin said. "And the primary object test is the external fuel tank."
To get all the details of any damage to Discovery, the launch was recorded by 107 ground-based cameras, radar and other imagers. The deputy shuttle program manager, Wayne Hale, said that analysts would have a first draft of their evaluation Wednesday but that a full profile will not be ready for six days.
Discovery's 13-day mission will be a welcome event at the international space station, forced since Columbia's breakup to subsist on shipments of staples and spares carried aloft by small Russian cargo spacecraft. Only the shuttle can do the heavy lifting necessary to deliver major replacement equipment and the remaining components of the station itself.
On this trip, the shuttle is bringing a new gyroscope, used to keep the station stable in space, and a storage platform to be mounted during a spacewalk. Station commander Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut, and flight engineer John Phillips, an American astronaut, meanwhile, will unload onto Discovery 21/2 years' worth of trash and worn-out equipment for shipment home.
The critical endgame in Discovery's three-day countdown began at 12:48 a.m. Tuesday, when the launch team began filling the external fuel tank with half a million gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen cooled to several hundred degrees below zero.
In the crew's quarters, Collins and the rest of the astronauts, dressed in short-sleeve aloha shirts with a midnight-blue motif, finished a light breakfast, while mission specialist Stephen Robinson strummed a guitar. The other astronauts included pilot James Kelly and mission specialists Soichi Noguchi, Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence and Charles Camarda.
In a normal launch sequence, engineers regard "tanking" -- handling cryogenic fuels with an enormous explosive potential -- as the second most dangerous activity on the pad, after the blastoff itself, but concern Tuesday focused as much on four small sensors in the bottom of the hydrogen tank.
Engineers scrubbed the planned launch two weeks ago when one of the sensors locked in the "wet" position after a test called for a "dry" reading. The sensors would trigger an emergency main engine shutdown if the tank were to run out of fuel prematurely.
Forty-five minutes into the tanking Tuesday, the launch team ordered a full test of the sensors, toggling between "wet" and "dry" without mishap. The team then locked them in the "dry" position, in effect conducting a constant test for the rest of the countdown. Again, there was no problem.
At 3 a.m., a weather prediction reduced the chances of a storm-induced scrub from 40 percent to 20 percent. Satellite photos showed clear skies over the central Florida coast.
Tanking finished uneventfully at 3:39 a.m.
The crew donned international orange spacesuits in the crew quarters "suit-up room" and relaxed in black leather armchairs, waiting for the call to the launchpad. Dawn broke at 6:40 a.m., revealing Discovery framed against a clear blue sky.
Ten minutes later, the astronauts left the crew's quarters, waved to a smattering of news people and cheering NASA employees, and climbed aboard a remodeled camper known as the "astrovan" for the 20-minute ride to the launchpad. By 7 a.m., Collins had arrived in the tiny "white room" vestibule outside Discovery's access door, where she finished dressing, assisted by a "close-out crew" of technicians in white suits.
In the launch control center, engineers finished another full-scale toggling of the hydrogen sensors, once again reporting no malfunctions.
Space veteran Collins chatted matter-of-factly with the white-room attendants before stepping into the orbiter. Rookie Camarda, however, flashed a handwritten sign reading "Hi, Dad!" while Noguchi, the mission's other rookie, had "Out to Launch" written on the back of an outsize "Get Out of Jail Free" card from a Monopoly set.
At 7:35 a.m., Collins, lying on her back in the mission commander's seat, raised the launch control center for a radio communications check: "Good morning, Eileen," responded Jeff Spaulding, NASA test director.
"And good morning to you, too," Collins replied.
Each astronaut was strapped in by the close-out crew, then asked for and obtained radio checks on the mission's several networks.
"We're getting close," astronaut commentator Alan Poindexter said at 8:10 a.m., "and the weather looks absolutely gorgeous."
The close-out crew checked spacesuits, then started removing its equipment, leaving the astronauts to survey the heavens. Then the close-out crew shut the main hatch. About 90 minutes remained before launch.
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, one of five mission specialists aboard Discovery, gives a thumbs-up to the TV camera on the flight deck of the shuttle in the first crew video downlink since the orbiter's successful launch.