Shuttle Discovery Launches After Delays

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The Space Shuttle Discovery roared off its Florida launch pad Tuesday, NASA'S first Independence Day manned shuttle launch in its history. The voyage to the International Space Station was postponed twice over the weekend due to bad weather. Engineers decided to launch the shuttle despite the discovery Monday of a pencil-sized piece of foam that cracked off the external fuel tank.


As Mike just said, the news of the North Korean missile launch came just over an hour after another blast off. Space shuttle Discovery is back in orbit.

(Soundbite of launch countdown)

Unidentified Announcer: Start. Two. One. Booster ignition and liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery, returning to the space station, paving the way for future missions beyond.

NPR's David Kestenbaum watched the launch. He joins us now from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. So David, on this Independence Day, I guess you could literally see the rocket's red glare.


You could. The sound is not unlike maybe a million fireworks going off all at once. It's an enormous adrenaline surge watching it. It's sort of terrifying and beautiful and when it takes off, the light is really, really bright and it leaves a big cloud behind it and it just goes straight up. So it was a spectacular launch.

We could actually, amazingly, we could see the solid rocket boosters when they disconnect and fall off. You could see those falling back to earth. They seemed to come down ever so slowly but, you know, they're quite big and it was just this bright pinprick in the sky falling back to earth.

NORRIS: I know, David, listening to you, you've seen so many of these but I can still hear the excitement in your voice.

KESTENBAUM: Yeah it's a, you know, and the earth shakes, I mean we're, you know, a few miles away and that's as close as they let you get, but you see the light first and then there's actually a delay and then the sound comes. You know, it's sort of like thunder and lightning.

NORRIS: There must be an incredible sense of relief now there, with these repeated delays.

KESTENBAUM: These shuttle launches are not regular events anymore. This is only the second one since 2003, which, as you know, didn't go well. That was the Columbia space shuttle launch and it hit a piece of foam that had fallen off the external tank on the way up and on the way in during re-entry, the shuttle burned up.

I was watching this launch with astronaut Carl Walz and he says it's actually easier to be on the space shuttle than it is watching it because on the space shuttle, you at least have things to do and you're sort of focused, and watching it, you know, it can be a little more nerve wracking. He has a good friend on board, Mike Fossum, who had been sending him emails in advance of the launch.

But a lot of people here will tell you that the space shuttle now, they feel, in some ways more confident about it. When Discovery came down in the first launch after Columbia, they said that it was the cleanest they've seen it. And so the heat tiles on the bottom were very clean and so they feel like in the past they weren't aware of the debris problem so much, but now that they are, they feel like they have a really good handle on it.

NORRIS: Well, speaking of the debris problems, in addition to all the spectators, there were reportedly 100 additional eyes on the launch, 100 special cameras recording this to make sure that no foam fell off the fuel tank and hit the shuttle. Do they know anything yet?

KESTENBAUM: We heard during the launch a comment that it looked clean, so I think in terms of the cameras they were monitoring during the launch, they didn't see anything obvious. But they're going to be going through a lot of very intense analysis of all these. There are over 100 cameras and there are some that are on the shuttle itself. There are some that are on the solid rocket boosters they're going to have to fish out of the ocean.

So far, it looks good. They said, look, we're going to have foam come off. Don't think if you see something come off that's immediately a problem. The idea is to keep the pieces small, sort of little popcorn-size pieces. They just don't want anything big coming off.

NORRIS: And if NASA officials are briefing all the reporters who gathered there for the launch, what else have they been saying?

KESTENBAUM: It's mostly congratulations to all the many workers at NASA who helped put this together and pulled this off. They're really hoping this is going to get the space shuttle back on a more regular schedule. They're hoping to get in maybe 15, 16 more launches before retiring it in 2010 and that's about four flights a year or a little more, I think. And that's sort of what the space shuttle program has done on average. So they're hoping that they don't have any more foam problems and they can go back to launching every few months.

NORRIS: And very, very quickly, David, what's the agenda for this launch?

KESTENBAUM: They're going to spend a lot of time making sure there's no damage to the heat shield so they can come back safely to earth and they're delivering tons of equipment and supplies to the International Space Station, including some fruit flies for an experiment.

NORRIS: NPR's David Kestenbaum at the Kennedy Space Center. Thanks, David.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

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