The space shuttle Discovery blasted into space more than two years after the shuttle Columbia was destroyed while re-entering earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board. The seven astronauts will spend most of their 12 days in space evaluating improvements to make the space shuttle safer to fly.
There has been no shuttle mission since Columbia disintegrated while re-entering earth's atmosphere in February 2003. Launch Director Mike Leimbach says he believes NASA has recovered from the disaster. "Really for the whole team we have almost come full circle. We have a 12-day mission in front of us, and then a landing, and then we can claim we have come full circle "
NASA officials say from their vantage point the launch went flawlessly, with only one temperature sensor out of hundreds on board the vehicle showing any irregularities. A fuel sensor that displayed erratic readings, which led to the postponement of Discovery's launch on July 13, showed no anomalies.
But video images show some debris falling away as the shuttle roared into orbit. Deputy Shuttle Program Manager, Wayne Hale says it is too early to say whether the debris will pose a problem to the Shuttle's mission, but he says if there is a problem it will be discovered during a routine inspection of the Shuttle's thermal protection system.
"I have to tell you that we are going to do that, we are going to do a very thorough inspection of the orbiter thermal protection system in the next two days. First with the boom system tomorrow and then with the rotation pitch maneuver in the pictures from the Space Station. So, we are going to know without a doubt the status of the thermal protection system before the Discovery crew comes home."
It was a three-kilogram piece of insulation that fell off Columbia's external fuel tank and struck the shuttle's left wing that caused a crack, which allowed hot gases to enter Columbia and destroy the shuttle when it re-entered earth's atmosphere.
A panel that examined the disaster faulted NASA for what it described as a lax safety attitude at the agency. More than two-years later NASA says it has carried extensive engineering and safety procedure modifications to make the shuttle safer.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin says the more than two year's of effort leading up to the launch were difficult, but certainly worth the effort. "The power and the majesty of the launch; but also the competence and the professionalism and 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."
Administrator Griffin cautioned that even amid the euphoria of the launch everyone involved should remember that space flight remains inherently dangerous. The mission he says will not be over until Discovery lands safely.
During their 12 days in space, Discovery's astronauts, under the command of Eileen Collins, will deliver supplies to the international space station and perform a variety of tasks to test new techniques and procedures aimed at making the shuttle safer to fly.