NASA Declares Discovery a 'Clean' Launch

NASA Declares Discovery a 'Clean' Launch
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)

Shortlyafter the Discovery crew said "goodnight", NASA officials announced that today'slaunch was "clean" compared to past launches. "I feel very good about where weare in this mission so far," said John Shannon, manager of space shuttleoperations.

The newimagery equipment on the shuttle, its solid rocket boosters (SRB), and the main tankexceeded 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 shouldremember that this is a test flight, we're seeing areas of the vehicle inflight operations that we've never seen before," Shannon said. "Everythingbeyond the SRB was new to us. We did not expect to have such clarity from theexternal tank camera. The daylight really helped us. We did not expect to havethis much information until the rotational pitch video on day three."

Theexternal tank camera, located on the main tank, took never-before-seen picturesof the underside of the shuttle as the two separated. A second camera on theshuttle's underside also took images of the separation, which engineers willreceive tomorrow for examination.

The newimaging equipment did capture a few minor pieces of debris that may otherwisenot have been noticed for another few days. During lift-off several peoplenoticed something break loose when the SRBs and theorbiter separated. The cameras on the SRB picked this up, but it is unclearwhat the debris was.

"The bigquestion is 'what is that?' The SRB has already separated, and shortly afterseparation you can see something there," Shannon said. "Is it a big piece faraway or a small piece close up?"

In thevideo it appears as though a chunk of material peels off the SRB but it doesnot strike the orbiter or anything else. "We've never had this footage before, sowe don't know if it happens on every flight or if this is a new occurrence,"Shannon said.

There arereports of a similar piece breaking from the other SRB, said Shannon addingthat additional camera views and radar imagery would be available for analysisover the next few days. "We will know within two days everything that fell offthe vehicle. Frost, covers, and everything else," Shannon said.

Video fromthe external tank also indicated that a one-and-a-half inch piece of tile mayhave broken from the nose landing gear door. Further analysis is needed todetermine if this will be a problem for the mission.

"The radarguys are working very hard to see that piece of tile, if that's what it is, asit departs the vehicle," Shannon said. He added that the engineering team canlook the tile with the shuttle's boom.

While it isunclear exactly what damage, if any, was done to the tile, Shannon does notexpect it to be critical. Over the course of the next few days the area will beassessed and repair options, if necessary, will be discussed. The crew isprepared to make such a repair if needed.

One otherobject that ground cameras caught falling from the main tank may have been abird.

"Veryearly, about two and a half seconds into flight, it looks like as we werelifting off one of the birds didn't get out of the way and it slid down theside of the main tank," said Shannon.

Tomorrow,when the crew wakes up, engineers will begin inspecting the wing leading edgesand nosecap. On flight day three the underside of theshuttle, and especially the nose landing gear tiles, will be examined. Datafrom these two days will determine what needs more investigating on flight dayfour.

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Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.