Atlantis makes 'majestic' liftoff
A review of video from the launch found no significant damage.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Space shuttle Atlantis thundered into orbit Saturday with no obvious damage from debris to worry NASA or the six-member crew as they prepared to resume construction of the international space station for the first time since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
After two weeks of delays due to storms and technical glitches, Atlantis rose from its seaside pad through a partly cloudy sky at 11:15 a.m. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin declared the launch "majestic."
"It was worth the wait and we're ready to get to work," said Atlantis commander Brent Jett.
Long training period
Jett and his crew now face one of the most challenging construction tasks in space history. But they also have trained for the mission, initially scheduled for 2003, longer than any crew in the past.
As they headed into space Saturday, more than 100 cameras zoomed in for any signs of foam breaking off its external fuel tank, the problem that doomed Columbia.
Early reviews of the video found no glaring damage. NASA's cameras spotted three possible hits -- two small foam streams and one ice chunk -- but they came so late that the debris wasn't moving fast enough to do much damage, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.
"We are looking at nits -- nothing of any remote consequence," Hale said. "Not only am I not alarmed, I'm really at ease after looking through this video."
The three hits
The first and most noticeable hit was just four minutes after launch when a dribble of small foam particles hit Atlantis' right belly, but it didn't appear to cause any damage, Hale said.
A minute and a half later, more foam hit the shuttle's right side, but again with no evident damage, Hale said. And at nearly nine minutes, a small ice chunk hit near the nose gear landing door but with no apparent harm, he said.
Still, he stressed that those reviews were preliminary. NASA will get a better look early today when Atlantis' crew uses the shuttle's robotic arm to take pictures of the heat shield and then later when it reaches the space station.
In 2003, Columbia's heat shield was damaged by flyaway foam from its external fuel tank during liftoff, allowing fiery gases to penetrate its wing and tear the shuttle apart as it later re-entered the atmosphere. Since then, NASA has struggled to find ways to prevent the hard foam from breaking away.
A day of celebration
Saturday, NASA mostly celebrated shaking off frustration.
"Not everything in the count leading up to this day was easy," Griffin said. "We had to dodge tropical storms, lightning strikes and things like that."
There was a slight problem when a freon coolant system didn't work properly during ascent, but NASA didn't view it as a major concern. The fuel cells that forced launch delays earlier in the week were working as expected, NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said.
"Great work!" astronaut Jeff Williams said minutes after the launch from the space station 220 miles above Earth.
Launch director Mike Leinbach called the liftoff "really, really clean."
Atlantis carried one of the heaviest payloads ever launched into space -- a 171/2 ton truss section that will be added to the half-built space station. It includes two solar arrays that will produce electricity for the orbiting outpost. Atlantis' weight was so much that it only had a crew of six, instead of the usual seven astronauts.
The astronauts will make three spacewalks during the 11-day flight to install the $372 million addition.
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