Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Tuesday, July 26, 2005. (AP Photo/David F. Martin)
Shortly after the Discovery crew said "goodnight", NASA officials announced that today's launch was "clean" compared to past launches. "I feel very good about where we are in this mission so far," said John Shannon, manager of space shuttle operations.
The new imagery equipment on the shuttle, its solid rocket boosters (SRB), and the main tank exceeded expectations and the large amount of data gathered will give engineers more than enough information to work with when inspecting the shuttle in orbit over the next few days.
"We should remember that this is a test flight, we're seeing areas of the vehicle in flight operations that we've never seen before," Shannon said. "Everything beyond the SRB was new to us. We did not expect to have such clarity from the external tank camera. The daylight really helped us. We did not expect to have this much information until the rotational pitch video on day three."
The external tank camera, located on the main tank, took never-before-seen pictures of the underside of the shuttle as the two separated. A second camera on the shuttle's underside also took images of the separation, which engineers will receive tomorrow for examination.
The new imaging equipment did capture a few minor pieces of debris that may otherwise not have been noticed for another few days. During lift-off several people noticed something break loose when the SRBs and the orbiter separated. The cameras on the SRB picked this up, but it is unclear what the debris was.
"The big question is 'what is that?' The SRB has already separated, and shortly after separation you can see something there," Shannon said. "Is it a big piece far away or a small piece close up?"
In the video it appears as though a chunk of material peels off the SRB but it does not strike the orbiter or anything else. "We've never had this footage before, so we don't know if it happens on every flight or if this is a new occurrence," Shannon said.
There are reports of a similar piece breaking from the other SRB, said Shannon adding that additional camera views and radar imagery would be available for analysis over the next few days. "We will know within two days everything that fell off the vehicle. Frost, covers, and everything else," Shannon said.
Video from the external tank also indicated that a one-and-a-half inch piece of tile may have broken from the nose landing gear door. Further analysis is needed to determine if this will be a problem for the mission.
"The radar guys are working very hard to see that piece of tile, if that's what it is, as it departs the vehicle," Shannon said. He added that the engineering team can look the tile with the shuttle's boom.
While it is unclear exactly what damage, if any, was done to the tile, Shannon does not expect it to be critical. Over the course of the next few days the area will be assessed and repair options, if necessary, will be discussed. The crew is prepared to make such a repair if needed.
One other object that ground cameras caught falling from the main tank may have been a bird.
"Very early, about two and a half seconds into flight, it looks like as we were lifting off one of the birds didn't get out of the way and it slid down the side of the main tank," said Shannon.
Tomorrow, when the crew wakes up, engineers will begin inspecting the wing leading edges and nosecap. On flight day three the underside of the shuttle, and especially the nose landing gear tiles, will be examined. Data from these two days will determine what needs more investigating on flight day four.