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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

HoustonChronicle.com - Agency starts assessing level of risk to seven-member crew

HoustonChronicle.com - Agency starts assessing level of risk to seven-member crewJuly 27, 2005, 3:34AM

Agency starts assessing level of risk to seven-member crew
Mission's joyous start renews hope for space program
By MARK CARREAU

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. - The shuttle Discovery thundered into orbit Tuesday for an overdue rendezvous with the international space station, a near-perfect launch into a bright-blue Florida sky marred only by concern about debris falling from the spacecraft during its ascent.

NASA engineers immediately began assessing whether a falling object spotted by new tracking cameras posed any risk to Discovery and its crew, hoping to avoid a replay of the tragedy 2 1/2 years ago when similar debris doomed the shuttle Columbia and grounded the U.S. manned space program.

Shuttle commander Eileen Collins and her crew were informed of the developments late Tuesday as they prepared to spend their first night in space.

Astronauts awoke for their first full day of work in space today with plans to inspect the shuttle's wings and nose for damage using a camera attached to the spacecraft's arm. The carefully orchestrated maneuvers were expected to take about seven hours.

"Our guys are going to take a professional look at every frame of footage we have from every camera we have," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said. "These are test flights. The primary object under flight test is the external tank and all of the design changes we have made so we would not have a repeat of" Columbia.

Discovery and its crew of seven lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on time, at 9:39 a.m. CDT, after a flawless countdown that saw no repeat of the fuel-gauge problem that stopped a launch attempt nearly two weeks ago.

As the shuttle rose, it carried the hope that, after a long absence, the nation is back in the space business and that the tortuous road to recovery after the Columbia disaster is at an end.

Thousands of emotional onlookers who gathered on Florida's Atlantic coast cheered as Discovery rode its pillar of fiery exhaust upward, as did NASA employees at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Gouge, object spotted
"On behalf of the many millions of people who believe so deeply in what we do, good luck, Godspeed — and have a little fun up there," launch director Mike Leinbach told Collins and her crew just before liftoff.

As Discovery raced into orbit, the space agency's new collection of ground and airborne tracking cameras and radar spotted a small gouge in Discovery's heat shielding and an unidentified object that appeared to have peeled away from the ship's external fuel tank.

A chunk of foam that fell from the fuel tank and struck a wing caused Columbia to come apart on re-entry over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. The investigative panel that determined the cause of that accident criticized the space agency's safety culture for ignoring a long history of debris strikes on flights that had nonetheless returned home safely.

Though headed for the international space station on a 12-day repair and supply mission, Discovery's crew will spend much of its time assessing NASA's $1.5 billion Columbia recovery strategy that included modifications to the disposable fuel tank to cut the debris losses.

Other changes made Discovery's flight the most scrutinized in the shuttle program's history.

The new tracking devices that filmed the ship's ascent to orbit detected a 1 1/2 -inch gouge in a soft silica heat-shielding tile around the nose landing-gear wheel door on Discovery's underside. The damage is in an area especially sensitive to the high temperatures that build during atmospheric re-entry.

It was not clear whether something had struck the tile.

A larger object appeared to fly away from the external tank without striking anything. The object was seen about the same time that the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters were jettisoned approximately two minutes after liftoff.

Both incidents were captured by the new video camera fastened near the top of the fuel tank and aimed at Discovery's underside.

"The big question is, what is that?" said NASA flight operations manager John Shannon. "It's too early. ... We'll learn more as we go through this process."

Using a camera attached to an extension of the shuttle's robot arm, the shuttle astronauts will spend most of today sweeping the brittle carbon paneling that covers the leading edges of Discovery's wings and the nose cap in search of impact damage. They planned additional inspections for Thursday.

Discovery is equipped with several repair kits that astronauts have trained to test on the flight. But Shannon said more analysis of the damage is necessary before a repair will even be considered.

As part of the Columbia recovery, the space agency also made first-ever plans to launch a rescue mission if a stricken shuttle cannot attempt a safe landing. The plan calls for the ship's astronauts to take refuge on the space station until another shuttle can retrieve them.

Thousands show support
As Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, nearly 2,500 guests of NASA, including first lady Laura Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, applauded and cheered.

"Our space program is a source of great national pride," President Bush said in a statement, "and this flight is an essential step toward our goal of continuing to lead the world in space science, human spaceflight and space exploration."

After reaching orbit, Collins saluted the astronauts who died on Columbia. "We miss them, and we are continuing their mission," she said. "God bless them tonight, and God bless their families."

In Clear Lake, home of the Johnson Space Center, the long-awaited launch proved an exhilarating moment for residents such as Betty Crockford, who watched the liftoff at home on television before heading to a neighborhood Starbucks.

"I just sat on the floor and cried," said Crockford, a retired research administrator at the University of Houston in Clear Lake. "I love NASA. I wanted this to happen, and it did."

Near Cape Canaveral, as many as 100,000 people crowded beaches, filled area parks and stopped at other vantage points to cheer on the astronauts.

They pointed excitedly when Discovery blazed away from the launch pad and tilted their heads back as the shuttle painted a curly trail of vapor across the sky.

"Awesome, awesome!" Port Orange resident Ruthie Martin gushed.

Employees at Johnson Space Center broke into applause as Discovery rumbled away.

Contributing to this report were Kim Cobb from Cape Canaveral, Melanie Markley from Clear Lake and Eric Berger from Johnson Space Center.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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