NASA Lauds 'Beautiful' Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis

Liftoff! Shuttle Atlantis Rockets Towards Space Station
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. (Image credit: Robert Pearlman/

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

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

Atlantislifted off from Pad 39A here at NASA's seaside Kennedy Space Center at7:38:04 p.m. EDT (2338:04 GMT), rising on a sinuouscloud 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 freakhail storm in late February gouged thousands of dents and divots on the tipof the shuttle's foam-covered external fuel tank and pushed the mission fromits initial March 15 target.

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

"The tank performed in a magnificent way despite having several thousandrepairs 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 strikethe orbiter.

NASA haskept a close watch on the shedding of fuel tank foam insulation during shuttlelaunches since the 2003 Columbiaaccident, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, and mademodifications to reduce the amount of debris shed during liftoffs.

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

Weather was also cooperative on launch day, as sea breezes blew afternoonthunderclouds inland away from the launch facility in time for liftoff, just asweather 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 thelaunch.

  • Video Interplayer: Space Station Power Up with STS-117
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  • The Great Space Quiz: Space Shuttle Countdown
  • Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage


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Staff Writer

Ker Than is a science writer and children's book author who joined as a Staff Writer from 2005 to 2007. Ker covered astronomy and human spaceflight while at, including space shuttle launches, and has authored three science books for kids about earthquakes, stars and black holes. Ker's work has also appeared in National Geographic, Nature News, New Scientist and Sky & Telescope, among others. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UC Irvine and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University. Ker is currently the Director of Science Communications at Stanford University.