The shuttle had a successful liftoff, but there won't be any celebrating until it lands.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Now the hard part begins -- inspecting for damage and determining if space shuttle Discovery is safe enough to bring its crew back home.
Propelled into orbit aboard an aging spaceship modified in response to disaster, the astronauts of shuttle Discovery relaunched the nation's human space program Tuesday and quickly encountered a hauntingly familiar complication.
Mission managers said some of the 100 newly positioned cameras detected several "debris incidents" during launch, including one involving a 11/2-inch fragment of an insulating tile that apparently peeled off the shuttle.
They said the incidents would be fully analyzed in space and at Mission Control during the next several days, and there was no initial evidence that the shuttle sustained worrisome damage. Meanwhile, they celebrated the main accomplishment of the day -- the liftoff.
"Here we are today with Americans back in flight in an American vehicle," said Wayne Hale, deputy manager of the shuttle program.
But now, the seven astronauts must test and employ new equipment, conduct a novel flight maneuver, and engage in an extremely high-altitude inspection of Discovery by space walkers.
No one, especially the crew, can forget that this was the first shuttle launch since Columbia -- struck by debris during launch -- disintegrated 40 miles over Texas as it carried seven astronauts back to the Kennedy Space Center in February 2003.
"We reflect on the last shuttle mission, the great ship Columbia and her inspiring crew ... ," Discovery commander Eileen Collins said from space at the end of a long day. "We miss them, but we are continuing their mission. God bless them tonight and God bless their families. Good night."
Recalling that loss, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin emotionally praised "the sheer gall, the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team that pulled this program out of the depths of despair 21/2 years ago and made it fly."
He and other NASA officials said that they hoped the debris incidents were routine and harmless and that they were revealed simply because so many new cameras recorded the launch.
But frame-by-frame inspections of videotapes and many inspections of the shuttle will be necessary during the next few days.
"I don't think we'll be doing any celebrating until we have wheel-stop at landing," Griffin said before the launch.
Some of the new cameras, particularly one aboard the huge external fuel tank, recorded spectacular views of the dramatic, historic launch.
As the countdown clock ticked to zero, the astronauts on Launch Pad 39B and many people around the space center and around the world awaited the words from Firing Room 3 in the Launch Control Center that have come to define the human space program.
"T-minus 10 seconds, go for main engine start," announced NASA launch commentator George Diller. "Seven, six, five, three engines up and burning, three, two, one and ... liftoff of space shuttle Discovery!"
In addition to Collins, also aboard the spacecraft were pilot Jim Kelly and mission specialists Charlie Camarda, Wendy Lawrence, Soichi Noguchi, Stephen Robinson and Andrew Thomas.
A never-resolved fuel gauge glitch that forced a July 13 scrub did not reappear Tuesday, much to the relief of NASA engineers.
The Columbia accident was caused by a 1.67-pound chunk of foam insulation that broke away from the ship's external fuel tank during launch, punching a hole in the left wing. The gash allowed superheated atmospheric gases to enter and melt the wing during re-entry.
During the next 29 months, the NASA spent more than $1.5 billion studying that accident and making more than 50 modifications -- some of them major -- to the remaining three shuttles.
Now, with the launch behind them, the crew's top priority is to determine the integrity of Discovery's insulating tiles and other material that protects the shuttle from the perilous re-entry through the atmosphere:
UCameras in the passenger compartment and at the end of a 100-foot boom will inspect the craft during the mission.
UAs the shuttle approaches the International Space Station in a few days to deliver supplies and parts, Collins will flip the ship into a never-before-attempted pirouette that will allow the two astronauts aboard the station to train cameras on the shuttle's underbelly.
URobinson and Noguchi will conduct a six-hour spacewalk to probe for damage.
'A happy tone'
The two spacewalking partners provided some entertainment for their crew mates as the eventful day progressed.
At 5 a.m., already awake for hours, the crew gathered at a table for the traditional cutting of the prelaunch cake. As he did before the first launch attempt, Robinson calmly strummed an acoustic guitar.
"A happy tone for our launch today," Diller said.
Happiness also prevailed as the astronauts donned their pumpkin-orange flight suits and drove to the launch pad.
When Noguchi climbed aboard Discovery, he waved with glee and held a sign that said, "Out to Launch." Camarda held a message for his four children: "Be Good for Mom."
Once aboard, they found what Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called "a breathing, living, hissing machine" eager to carry them into space. Nelson rode aboard Columbia in 1985.
"It's almost like it's straining to get out of its gate," Nelson said earlier this month. "You realize it's alive and ready to do its business."
And it must be remembered that space flight is inherently risky.
"Risk is the price of progress," said Gene Kranz, flight director for several of the Apollo moon landings, a legendary NASA figure played by actor Ed Harris in the movie "Apollo 13." "Risk is the price of exploration."
His successors have learned that lesson. Landing at the Kennedy Space Center is tentatively set for 5:46 a.m. EDT Aug. 7.
"It takes eternal vigilance to do what we do and there isn't anything easy about it," said William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator.