Discovery blasts off safely despite fuel tank concerns

After several days of false starts and increasing tension, the US space shuttle Discovery yesterday blasted into orbit from Florida in an apparently trouble-free launch.

Three and a half years after the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on its return to Earth, as a result of falling insulation foam damaging the craft's heat shields on take-off, Discovery was permitted to fly despite continuing concerns about this crucial issue. Two weeks ago, Nasa's chief engineer and top-ranking safety official objected to the 12-day mission unless this problem could be eliminated.

Officials said it was possible that small amounts of foam could have been dislodged on take-off and one reporter questioned whether what he and others were looking at on a launch video was a piece of flapping insulation foam.

Eyewitness accounts from Cape Canaveral said that less than five minutes after take-off, a speck could be seen flying off the fuel tank and striking the belly of Discovery and that immediately after launch three small pieces could be seen falling. Nasa experts will spend the coming days examining video footage of the launch in an attempt to assess whether they anticipate any problems.

Discovery launched at 2.38pm local time with Commander Steven Lindsey, an air force fighter pilot, at the controls. The aim of the mission is to connect to the international space station tomorrow. Among Discovery's crew is a German astronaut, Thomas Reiter, who will move into the space station for six months.

"I can't think of a better place to be on 4 July," he said shortly before take-off. "We hope to very soon get you an up close and personal look at the rocket's red glare." The launch director Mike Leinbach said: "Discovery's ready, the weather's beautiful, America is ready to return the space shuttle to flight. So good luck and godspeed, Discovery."

Yet even on Sunday it was obvious that the issue of falling insulation foam had not been overcome. When the launch was delayed because of bad weather it was discovered that a piece three inches long had come loose, but it was decided that by itself this was not cause to ground the mission.

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