NASA's first-ever Fourth of July manned launch came after two weather delays and a new crack in foam insulation on the fuel tank. Shuttle managers said early video images showing small pieces of debris breaking away — and one even striking the shuttle — were not troubling.
CBS space consult Bill Harwood reports that all in all it was a pretty clean launch.
Debris spotted by astronaut Mike Fossum shortly after the shuttle Discovery reached orbit today appears to be harmless ice, not an insulating blanket as Fossum first speculated, flight controllers confirmed, Harwood reports.
In a brief radio message to the crew, mission control reported "the initial assessment here is it does indeed look like ice. We saw a similar event on STS-121 (Discovery's last flight a year ago) but we're going to continue to look at it further and we certainly appreciate you getting that video to us pronto."
It was Griffin who chose to go ahead with the launch over concerns from the space agency's safety officer and chief engineer about foam problems that have dogged the agency since Columbia was doomed by a flyaway chunk of insulation 3½ years ago.
Discovery thundered away from its seaside pad at 2:38 p.m EDT .
About three minutes later, three or four pieces of debris were seen flying off the tank, and another popped off a bit later, said shuttle program manager Wayne Hale. Mission Control later told the astronauts the latter piece seemed to strike the belly of Discovery, but cautioned it was no concern because of the timing.
Discovery was so high by then, Hale said, that there wasn't enough air to accelerate the pieces into the shuttle and cause damage.
"That is the very raw, preliminary data," he said. "It will be a while before we get a complete picture of what happened during the ascent."
The astronauts reported seeing what they described as a large piece of cloth tumbling away from Discovery soon after they reached orbit. It looked like a thermal blanket from the shuttle and was perhaps up to 8 feet long, they said.
Hale and others on the launch management team were in a jubilant mood over the smooth liftoff.
"No, we did not plan to launch on the Fourth of July, but it sure did work out to be great to launch on Independence Day," said Hale, who was wearing a patriotic tie.
Commander Steven Lindsey, an Air Force fighter pilot, was at Discovery's controls and aiming for a Thursday linkup with the international space station.
"Discovery's ready, the weather's beautiful, America is ready to return the space shuttle to flight. So good luck and Godspeed, Discovery," launch director Mike Leinbach said just before liftoff.
"I can't think of a better place to be here on the Fourth of July," radioed Lindsey. "For all the folks on the Florida east coast, we hope to very soon get you an up-close and personal look at the rocket's red glare."
It was unclear for a while Monday whether Discovery would fly at all.
A slice of foam, not much bigger than a crust of bread, fell off an expansion joint on the external fuel tank as the spacecraft sat on the launch pad. Shuttle managers concluded Monday night after intensive engineering analysis that the remaining foam on that part of the tank was solid.
Engineers said the piece — 3 inches long and just one-tenth of an ounce — was too small to pose a threat even if it had come off during launch and smacked the shuttle. Inspectors devised a long pole with a camera to inspect the joint and found no evidence of further damage. NASA also made sure there was no excessive ice buildup at that spot Tuesday.
The fallen foam, albeit harmless, added to the tension already surrounding this mission.
NASA's chief engineer and top-ranking safety official objected two weeks ago to the 12-day mission without eliminating lingering dangers from foam loss, considered probable and potentially catastrophic.
They were overruled by shuttle managers and, ultimately, Griffin. He stressed the need to get on with building the half-done, long-overdue space station before the shuttles are retired in 2010 to make way for a moonship, per U.S. President George W. Bush's orders.
Griffin said he welcomed the debate over Discovery's launch and acknowledged that the space agency plays the odds with every shuttle liftoff.
"If foam hits the orbiter and doesn't damage it, I'm going to say ho-hum because I know we're going to release foam. The goal is to make sure that the foam is of a small enough size that I know we're not going to hurt anything," Griffin said in a weekend interview with The Associated Press.
"It's hardly the only thing that poses a risk to a space shuttle mission," he said.