Discovery launches – The Shuttle is back

by Chris Bergin

Shuttle Discovery has launched on schedule with only one potential issue pre-launch in an awe-inspiring lift-off from the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA officials will be holding off on the official celebrations until the Orbiter is safely back on solid ground 12 days from now, and there are issues being discussed about a large piece of debris that was seen flying off the Orbiter at T+4 seconds – but more so another two debris issues seen just before and after SRB sep.

The shuttle fleet had been grounded since the Columbia orbiter disintegrated re-entering Earth’s atmosphere on 1 February 2003, killing all seven astronauts.

Since the loss of Columbia, NASA has spent more than $1.4 billion to redesign the external tank, restructure its management team, and make other safety changes recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

NASA had attempted to launch Discovery on 13 July, but an ECO sensor in the external fuel tank failed a pre-launch test. So managers delayed lift-off while they worked on the problem.

Now Discovery is finally off the ground, its seven-strong crew is bringing much-needed supplies to the International Space Station. They will also test new safety measures required after the Columbia disaster.

One of the new features is an extension of the shuttle’s robotic arm to reach underneath the orbiter. This allows the inspection of any damage to the sensitive heat shield. Such damage doomed Columbia when it let searing hot plasma into the shuttle during atmospheric re-entry. Astronauts will perform the complicated manoeuvres required with the arm extension on Wednesday.

Then as the shuttle approaches the ISS on Thursday, commander Collins will make the orbiter perform a back flip. This will expose the orbiter’s belly to the station so that the two crewmembers aboard can take digital pictures of the heat shield.

If engineers spot critical damage during these inspections or through pictures taken from the ground during launch, the space agency could send a rescue shuttle to retrieve the crew from the space station. In the past, NASA has not had a spare shuttle ready to take on a rescue. During the first of three spacewalks, astronauts Soichi Noguchi and Steve Robinson will also test new tools for repairing a damaged heat shield in space.

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