NASA Celebrates Shuttle Launch, Eyes Tank Foam Loss

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. (Image credit: AP Photo)

This story was updated at7:16 p.m. EDT.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA officials lauded the July4th launch of the space shuttle Discovery Tuesday but added that much workremains ahead, not the least of which are evaluations of several pieces of foamdebris that popped loose from the orbiter's fuel tank.

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

"It could be an icefrost ramp, it could be something else," Hale said during apost-launch press briefing here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC), addinganother piece of foam was also seen almost five minutes into launch. "Bothof those are interesting because they are after the time we are concerned aboutaerodynamic transport doing damage to shuttle tile."

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

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

Later comments between flightcontrollers and Discovery's astronaut crew indicated that the second foam piecemay have struck the orbiter's mid-body between the nose landing gear and mainlanding gear doors.

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

Reportfrom space

Meanwhile, STS-121 missionspecialist MichaelFossum – who along with crewmate StephanieWilson conducted a photographic survey of Discovery's externaltank separation – reported seeing what appeared to be a piece ofcloth drifting between the shuttle and its discarded fuel tank.

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

But after analyzing imagerytaken by Fossum, NASA analysts later determined the object was merely icedrifting away from Discovery, NASA officials said.

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

A goodlaunch

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

The spacecraft shot into thebright 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 programmanager John Shannon. "This is kind of the starting gun for us...we have avery aggressive flight in front of us."

NASA chief Michael Griffincalled Discovery's STS-121 successful "one of the better" days NASAcan have.

"In fact, they don't getmuch better than this and we're pretty happy," Griffin said during thepost-launch briefing.

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

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

Despite Tuesday's holidaylaunch, overtime pay is not in the cards for the STS-121 astronauts aboardDiscovery.

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

NASA will hold a pressconference no earlier than 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT) on NASATV. You are invited to follow Discovery's mission activities 'sNASA TV feed available byclicking here.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.