Discovery in Orbit, NASA Checks for Damage NASA sends Space Shuttle Discovery into orbit in the first shuttle launch since the Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts. NASA managers are now analyzing data to ensure the shuttle's heat-resistant surfaces were not damaged during launch.
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Discovery in Orbit, NASA Checks for Damage

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Discovery in Orbit, NASA Checks for Damage

Discovery in Orbit, NASA Checks for Damage

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Right now the space shuttle Discovery is traveling 17,500 miles an hour in orbit around the Earth. It's making the first space shuttle flight in two and a half years and the first since the Columbia accident took the lives of seven astronauts.

NORRIS: NASA has carefully examined video of this morning's launch. It shows some debris--what may be a piece of heat-protective tile--flying off the shuttle during ascent. It also shows a shuttle tank apparently hitting a bird. NASA says astronauts will now inspect the shuttle's exterior, but these events aren't unusual on launch. They've documented some 15,000 dings to tiles on past missions. And they say so far this mission appears to be off to a great start. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports from the Kennedy Space Center.


In the darkness before sunrise the shuttle was visible for miles. Stationary beams of light shot into the sky from the launch pad. It was as if the shuttle were lit from within. By 8:30 AM seven astronauts were strapped in. Cady Coleman, an astronaut who was watching from an observation area, said being nervous is not in the job description.

Ms. CADY COLEMAN (Astronaut): I can't afford to be distracted by thinking, `Oh, I'm nervous that I might make a mistake.' And the way I deal with that is just to know that I am the most prepared that I can humanly be. And then with that assurance, then I can put that nervousness aside and just do my job.

KESTENBAUM: Problems with a fuel sensor had delayed the previous launch attempt, but they did not reappear this time and NASA went ahead.

Unidentified Man: Three, two, one, and liftoff of space shuttle Discovery.

KESTENBAUM: The engines threw out a hot, white flame and the shuttle roared into the sky, left a vertical cloud behind it stretching from the ground up and up and up. Eight and a half minutes later the main engines shut off as planned and NASA cameras showed a view from the shuttle itself as the huge orange fuel tank fell away toward Earth. Later the astronauts unbuckled, floated around and gave the thumbs-up to a camera. Back on Earth NASA's administrator, Michael Griffin, asked observers to take note of what had occurred today.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA Administrator): The power and the majesty of the launch, of course, but also the competence and the professionalism, the sheer gall, the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team that pulled this program out of the depths of despair two and a half years ago and made it fly.

KESTENBAUM: Another manager said his heart had been in his throat all morning. Associate Administrator William Readdy was also relieved.

Mr. WILLIAM READDY (Associate Administrator, NASA): I think today Mother Nature smiled on us and I also think the Columbia crew smiled on us. We owe them and their families a debt of gratitude. The entire NASA family does.

KESTENBAUM: Investigators determined that the Columbia accident was caused by a two-pound piece of foam that fell off during launch. The foam hit the shuttle's wing, cracking it or punching a hole. And this time during the Discovery launch, some observers noted what appeared to be a piece of debris coming off again. NASA is taking extra precautions on launch now. Cameras film the launch from a variety of angles. Inside the shuttle's wings there are new sensors designed to detect any impact. Also, in the coming days astronauts will use a hundred-foot-long robotic arm to inspect heat resistant surfaces for possible damage. Those surfaces need to be intact for re-entry. They experience temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The shuttle program was originally intended to make space flight routine, with perhaps a launch every week. Astronaut David Wolf reflected on that after today's launch.

Mr. DAVID WOLF (Astronaut): We didn't get to the flight a week that we had hoped for. It turns out space flight is really hard, and that's why we're in the business, and each mission pushes the edge back. And perhaps someday we'll be able to achieve flight--a space flight that routinely, but this is plenty hard to do.

KESTENBAUM: On day three of the mission Discovery's astronauts plan to dock with the International Space Station and deliver supplies. On day 13 of the mission the Discovery astronauts have a final challenging task scheduled: Put the shuttle back on the ground safely. David Kestenbaum, NPR News at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SIEGEL: There's a time line of the shuttle mission at our Web site,

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