NASA Celebrates Shuttle Launch, Eyes Tank Foam Loss
The Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on mission STS-121 Tuesday, July 4, 2006. It was the third attempt at a launch since Saturday.
Credit: AP Photo

This story was updated at 7:16 p.m. EDT.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA officials lauded the July 4th launch of the space shuttle Discovery Tuesday but added that much work remains ahead, not the least of which are evaluations of several pieces of foam debris that popped loose from the orbiter's fuel tank.

A video camera mounted to Discovery's external tank caught at least three, possibly four, pieces of shuttle fuel tank foam falling away from its perch two minutes and 47 seconds into the launch, NASA space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.

"It could be an ice frost ramp, it could be something else," Hale said during a post-launch press briefing here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC), adding another piece of foam was also seen almost five minutes into launch. "Both of those are interesting because they are after the time we are concerned about aerodynamic transport doing damage to shuttle tile."

Shuttle officials have repeatedly said they expected to see some foam loss during Discovery's launch, and are awaiting their first report from image analysts poring through today's launch imagery. A press briefing on that report is expected to occur no earlier than 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT), NASA said.

"I would not count this as off nominal, this is kind of what we expected," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations. "I think we've got two awesome pieces of data here from an engineering standpoint."

Later comments between flight controllers and Discovery's astronaut crew indicated that the second foam piece may have struck the orbiter's mid-body between the nose landing gear and main landing gear doors.

Hale stressed that the timing at which the foam pieces fell from Discovery much later than when any large debris could damage the orbiter's heat shield. That timing ranges from about 60 seconds after liftoff on to about 135 seconds – or two minutes and 15 seconds – into the flight.

Report from space

Meanwhile, STS-121 mission specialist Michael Fossum – who along with crewmate Stephanie Wilson conducted a photographic survey of Discovery's external tank separation – reported seeing what appeared to be a piece of cloth drifting between the shuttle and its discarded fuel tank.

"It seemed to be some type of material at least four to five feet long, perhaps as much as six to eight," Fossum said, who speculated that it could be part of a shuttle thermal blanket system.

But after analyzing imagery taken by Fossum, NASA analysts later determined the object was merely ice drifting away from Discovery, NASA officials said.

Commanded by veteran astronaut Steven Lindsey, Discovery's STS-121 mission is NASA's second shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia accident. The mission will deliver vital supplies and a third crewmember to the International Space Station, as well as test out maneuvers to use a shuttle robotic arm extension as a work platform.

A good launch

While analysis of Discovery's ascent imagery continues, shuttle officials hailed today's July 4th launch as a shot in the arm for NASA's shuttle program.

The spacecraft shot into the bright blue holiday sky above Florida at 2:37:55 p.m. EDT (1837:55 GMT).

"It just blows me away, tears were in my eyes as I watched it going," said deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon. "This is kind of the starting gun for us...we have a very aggressive flight in front of us."

NASA chief Michael Griffin called Discovery's STS-121 successful "one of the better" days NASA can have.

"In fact, they don't get much better than this and we're pretty happy," Griffin said during the post-launch briefing.

Mission managers are confident that Discovery's power system does have enough liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to support an extra mission day, which would allow STS-121 spacewalkers Piers Sellers and Fossum a third extravehicular activity during their mission.

"It was just a beautiful day to watch Discovery launch on July 4th and see it go for so far, and see separation and see the boosters tumbling back to Earth, it was just a great day," said Michael Leinbach, NASA launch director, after the space shot.

Despite Tuesday's holiday launch, overtime pay is not in the cards for the STS-121 astronauts aboard Discovery.

"They'll get time and a half when we get time and a half," said Griffin with a smile. "I wouldn't hold my breath."

NASA will hold a press conference no earlier than 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT) on NASA TV. You are invited to follow Discovery's mission activities usingSPACE.com 'sNASA TV feed available by clicking here.

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