Shuttle Makes Historic Independence Day Launch

Space shuttle Discovery's successful launch Tuesday was the first shuttle launch ever on the Fourth of July. It was only the second flight since the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

NASA put on a fireworks show yesterday. When space shuttle discovery streaked into the blue sky over Florida it was the first ever shuttle launched on the 4th of July, and only the second flight since the Columbia disaster three years ago.

NPR's Nell Boyce has more.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Most Americans spent yesterday at cookouts and picnics. But at Kennedy Space Center everyone was hard at work. Michael Griffin is NASA's administrator. He says if doesn't get overtime pay, neither will the astronauts.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA Administrator): Right after we get time and a half they'll get time and a half.

(Soundbite of man counting down)

Unidentified Man: 10, nine, eight, seven, six…

BOYCE: The launch pad trembled and a bright light appeared under Discovery.

(Soundbite of man counting down)

Unidentified Man: Two, one, (Unintelligible) to ignition, and lift off of the Space Shuttle Discovery…

BOYCE: It slowly lifted off and began to gather speed, leaving behind a long white trail of exhaust against the blue sky. Once the seven astronauts safely reached orbit people cheered and it finally felt like a holiday. Ever since the Columbia disaster 2003, NASA has been struggling to get back to routine shuttle flights.

That disaster was caused by a piece of insulating foam that fell off of the fuel tank during launch, damaging the shuttle's heat shield. Engineers are now examining photos of Discovery's tanks during lift off. Program manager Wayne Hale, said last night, that some of the most striking images show the bright orange tank detaching and falling back to earth.

Mr. WAYNE HALE (Discovery Program Manager): Watching the tank as it tumbles over that beautiful blue ocean and clouds below, I mean, that's a work of art too many of us. So I think that was great.

BOYCE: Besides being beautiful, the photos show that only some small pieces of foam fell off the tank before it detached. And the pieces fell off when the shuttle was up high where the air is very thin. That's a safer time for debris to fall because there's no supersonic wind to smash it against the shuttle's heat shield.

Hale says they are still looking at the data, but he thinks the changes they've made to tank since the Columbia disaster seem to have worked.

Mr. HALE: I think the tank performed very, very well indeed, very pleased. As opposed to where we were last year, we saw nothing that gives us any kind of concern about the health of the crew or the vehicle, or any pause to think that we wouldn't be safe to fly the next time.

BOYCE: This is good news for NASA administrator Michael Griffin. He took a lot of heat for his decision to launch the shuttle when some top NASA engineers worried about foam. But Griffin claims that he was not aware of having any particular emotions as he watched Discovery's picture perfect launch.

Mr. GRIFFIN: I certainly don't feel it is any since of personal vindication, or it's a vindication for the scientific method, if anything. We followed the data and we went where we took us. You know, we keep coming back to feelings, you know. I'll have time for feeling after I'm dead. Right now, we're busy.

BOYCE: The mission should last 12 to 13 days. The astronauts will re-supply the space station and do some experiments. Some fruit flies are hitching a ride. They will take a couple of walks in space, inspect the shuttle and do some chores. NASA hopes this launch will be the first of more frequent ones. It needs 15 more launches to complete the space station.

A number of veteran astronauts were at the Space Center to watch the launch. One of them is Carl Wolf(ph). He's good friends with one of the rookies on this flight, mission specialist Mike Fossum.

Mr. CARL WOLF (Astronaut): You do worry because you know all the things that can go wrong and you are helpless. You're just a spectator at that point.

BOYCE: After Discovery was safely in orbit around the earth, Wolf felt happy enough to sing a patriotic serenade.

Mr. WOLF (Singing): Who has brought stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight.

BOYCE: Wolf is a lead singer for the band called Max Q. It's named after the time when the shuttle feels the maximum dynamic pressure during assent.

Nell Boyce, NPR New at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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