Shuttle Launch Marks U.S. Return to Space

After two weeks of delay, the space shuttle Discovery blasted off into space Tuesday in a flawless launch from Florida. Alex Chadwick talks with David Kestenbaum about the first successful launch of a space shuttle since the shuttle Columbia burned up in re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its crew of seven astronauts.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, are those presidential aspirations we're hearing from Senator Hillary Clinton?

First, the lead. After 30 long months since the Columbia disaster, NASA is back in the manned space flight business.

Unidentified Man #1: Three, two, one, and liftoff of space shuttle Discovery!

(Soundbite of Discovery lifting off)

CHADWICK: The seven astronauts--led by a woman pilot, I'll note--are on for a mission that'll last almost two weeks. NPR's David Kestenbaum is at the launch site at Cape Canaveral.

David, I watched the liftoff. I thought to myself, `Gee whiz, that really is spectacular.'

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Yeah, you were watching the stuff on television, right?

CHADWICK: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: They have cameras everywhere now. In fact, some of the views you get to see on TV are views that only the astronauts used to get to see. This was one of the requirements of getting back to launch was that they wanted to film the entire thing from the moment it left the launchpad until it reached orbit. So there are something like a hundred cameras around filming various parts during liftoff and...

CHADWICK: They've got one on the exterior of the rocket, so you're seeing the thing as it's going up. It's just amazing.

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, it really is.

CHADWICK: So what's actually going to happen on the mission?

KESTENBAUM: The mission--now that we're on to the mission. Actually, it's interesting. They're carrying thousands of pounds of payload and equipment that's going to be delivered to the International Space Station, but if you look at the briefing book, the thing it lists as the top priority--that's somewhere down at the bottom, like delivering drinking water, things like that--and at the top is testing out all these new safety things that they've put in place since Columbia. So one of the first things they're going to do is inspect the heat shields, the tiles underneath the wings, the leading edge of the wings and the nose cone. Those are the things that have to hold up to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit on the way back in. And they want to make sure nothing fell off and nothing hit them and there are no cracks, and they're going to go over them literally millimeter by millimeter. And that's their first priority.

CHADWICK: How do they do that? Are they going outside of the shuttle, or do they have an instrument that'll do it?

KESTENBAUM: They have a hundred-foot-long robotic arm and a laser on the end of it and it'll do 3-D imaging down to the millimeter or submillimeter, and people on the ground and in space are going to go over every single little inch of the spacecraft.

CHADWICK: OK. Here, we're going to go back to the launch moment for a minute. This is some of the raw audio feed that you could hear from NASA. Here it is.

Unidentified Man #2: Discovery, Houston. Press to MECO and single engine Zaragoza 104.

Unidentified Woman: Press to MECO and single engine Zaragoza 104.

CHADWICK: You know, David, it's fascinating to listen to this stuff, but I don't understand what they're talking about. Do you--have you been there long enough to figure out what they mean?

KESTENBAUM: Part of that. MECO is something I know, which is main engine cut-off. But I was just looking up--I have a lot of information here, 150 pages. And the last, oh, 20 pages or so are all acronyms. And MECO's not in there, but here's some of my favorites. There's the active common berthing system, ACBM. Do you know what the APAS is?

CHADWICK: I don't even know what the active common berthing system is.

KESTENBAUM: I really wanted to quiz the astronauts. This is the androgynous peripheral attach system, not to be confused with the androgynous peripheral attachment system, which is different.

CHADWICK: Well...

KESTENBAUM: There are pages and pages of these.

CHADWICK: We'll be learning a lot more over the next couple of weeks of coverage there. Thank you very much, NPR's David Kestenbaum, at NASA's launch facility in Cape Canaveral.

And you can find out what the shuttle astronauts will be doing every day in space at our Web site, where we'll have full online coverage. It's npr.org. You'll see complete coverage of the mission there, too.

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