NASA Lauds 'Beautiful' Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis
The space shuttle Atlantis rockets skyward from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to kick off the STS-117 construction mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com.

Senior NASA officials spoke glowingly of the shuttle Atlantis' performance late Friday after the orbiter shot into space this evening without any significant hiccups.

"We had a very good countdown and launch,? said NASA associate administrator Rex Geveden in a post-launch news conference. ?The space shuttle Atlantis is safely in orbit for the STS-117 mission.?

Atlantis lifted off from Pad 39A here at NASA's seaside Kennedy Space Center at 7:38:04 p.m. EDT (2338:04 GMT), rising on a sinuous cloud of expanding smoke in a blue sky still illuminated by sunlight.

"It was a beautiful launch," said NASA launch director Mike Leinbach. "I had forgotten how beautiful they were."

Atlantis' launch occurred three months late, after a freak hail storm in late February gouged thousands of dents and divots on the tip of the shuttle's foam-covered external fuel tank and pushed the mission from its initial March 15 target.

The event prompted NASA to wait for lengthy repairs that required engineers to sand away damaged areas of the fuel tank and apply new foam insulation. Despite its speckled appearance, the repaired fuel tank performed nominally, said shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

"The tank performed in a magnificent way despite having several thousand repairs done on it," Hale said. "As I told?the external tank manager, 'Give me more speckled tanks.'"

Preliminary analysis of images taken by onboard cameras revealed expected "popcorning" foam loss during ascent but none that appeared to strike the orbiter.

NASA has kept a close watch on the shedding of fuel tank foam insulation during shuttle launches since the 2003 Columbia accident, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, and made modifications to reduce the amount of debris shed during liftoffs.

"I wouldn't doubt that there's some foam missing from the tank in some areas," said Bill Gersteinmaier, associate administrator for space operations.  ?We've seen it before but we need to take a good look at that, [so] we don't count our chickens before they hatch.?

Weather was also cooperative on launch day, as sea breezes blew afternoon thunderclouds inland away from the launch facility in time for liftoff, just as weather forecasters predicted.

"It felt great from beginning to end, and all the way in between," Leroy Cain, who chairs Atlantis? STS-117 Mission Management Team, said of the launch.

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