Shuttle Discovery Blasts into Orbit The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from Cape Canaveral and enters orbit. The launch went ahead after NASA officials found a small crack in the foam insulation around the shuttle's fuel tank Monday.
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Shuttle Discovery Blasts into Orbit

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Shuttle Discovery Blasts into Orbit

Shuttle Discovery Blasts into Orbit

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Unidentified Man: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six...

(Soundbite of shuttle engines blasting)

Unidentified Man: Go for main engines. Start main engines, start - two, one. Booster ignition, and lift off of the space shuttle Discovery, returning to the space station, paving the way for future missions beyond.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Space shuttle Discovery blasted off today. NASA officials are breathing a sigh of relief. This is only the second launch in the last three years. NPR's Nell Boyce is covering the launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And Nell, we were watching it on TV. It was pretty exciting. But up close, it must have been really, really exciting.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

It was really, really tremendous. You know, we've been watching the space shuttle sit on the launch pad a couple of miles away under cloudy skies for basically the whole the weekend. And today, the skies were blue, but we didn't want to get out hopes up. So everybody was just waiting, and then there was the great countdown, which you just heard. And you could see a big cloud of white exhaust start to form under the shuttle. Then you saw this red fire coming out the bottom, and it started to slowly move up, and it started going faster and faster. And then the sound hit us. At first, it sounded like flags flapping really loudly, but then it got louder and louder, sort of like fire works. And you could see this long cloud of exhaust sort of coming down from the shuttle, all the way to the ground, like a big finger-like cloud from the sky to the ground.

And at the tip of the finger, you could see the red glow of the shuttle. You could see the rocket boosters, when they detached, sort of falling down. They were like a silver glint in the sky. And then it went up and up, and we could only watch it on the monitors then. It was up in orbit.

BRAND: Mm. Well, this was, I understand, pretty nerve-wracking in the last couple of days with some mechanical problems. But NASA officials seem to put that behind them fairly quickly today.

BOYCE: Yeah, there were a couple little glitches, I would say, that they had been dealing with in the days leading up to this launch. A couple days ago, there was a dodgy thermostat on one of the small thrusters that the shuttle uses when it maneuvers around up on orbit, as it docks in the International Space Station. They decided that wasn't a problem. They decided they were going to go ahead with the launch. And then yesterday, they were grappling with a small piece of foam, almost the size of a crust of bread that had apparently fallen off the shuttle's external fuel tank. Falling foam has been a concern ever since the Columbia disaster three years ago, when a piece of falling foam during launch hit its heat shield and damaged it fatally. So NASA took that very seriously, but after a day of study, they decided that wasn't going to be a problem, and they decided to go ahead with the launch today.

BRAND: And what will the astronauts do up there?

BOYCE: Well, some people have described this as kind of a routine mission, kind of a pedestrian mission. They're bringing food, some supplies - there's going to be a freezer and a new oxygen generation system. There's a German astronaut who's kind of hitching a ride. He's going to go for an extended stay on the station. But really, what they're trying to do with this flight is show that they can successfully launch the shuttle, have safe, clean launch, and hopefully get the shuttle back to more frequent flights, the way it was before the Columbia disaster. They used to fly the shuttle four times a year or more, and in the last three years, there's only been one other flight besides this one.

BRAND: Mm hmm. And I know just - on a lighter note - NASA was worried about some vultures flying around, hanging around, getting in the way. Any evidence?

BOYCE: That's true, that's true. If there's - if one of these big, black birds hit the space shuttle on the way up, that could damage its heat shield. So NASA has been trying to trap them, or bait them away to keep them away from the launch pad. They've been flocking around - we saw some perched on the satellite dishes near the press building, but I haven't seen any today. So maybe what NASA did worked, or maybe the roar of the shuttle scared them away.

BRAND: Well, maybe that's where they belong. Overseeing the press. NPR's Nell Boyce is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Thanks, Nell.

BOYCE: Thank you.

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