A nation waits nervously as 'Discovery' takes off

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The Independent US

Nasa engineers were last night examining video footage from the launch of the shuttle Discovery after pieces of debris were seen falling from the craft. Officials said one of the pieces appeared to be a piece of thermal tile from the shuttle's underbelly.

"The guys are going over the footage frame by frame," said Wayne Hale, deputy manager of the shuttle programme. "We are going to know without a shadow of a doubt the condition of the thermal protection system before the crew comes home."

Initially officials had said yesterday's take-off ­ the first since the Columbia disaster two-and-a-half years ago which killed seven astronauts ­ had been a "clean launch". There had been no repeat of a problem with fuel sensors which had caused the initial launch date to be delayed by two weeks. "Take note of what you saw here today," said Nasa Administrator Michael Griffin. "The power and the majesty of the launch, and the competence and the professionalism, the grittiness of this team that pulled this program out of the depths of despair two-and-a-half years ago."

But on examining video footage taken from the launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida, engineers noticed several pieces of debris falling away from the craft, including a piece of insulation foam from the external fuel tank. It was this which struck and damaged Columbia, ultimately causing its demise.

Experts have said that the crew of Discovery will be fully aware of any damage to their craft. Nasa promptly notified Discovery commander Eileen Collins of the debris and said the agency's image-analysis experts would have more information by this morning.

In addition, astronauts will use a 50ft boom to inspect their ship later today and the crew of the international space station will photograph all sides of Discovery before the scheduled link-up between the two tomorrow.

When Discovery launched into blazing blue skies at 10.39am local time ­ reaching orbit just nine minutes later ­ officials were close to euphoric. Broader questions as to the utility of the aging shuttle programme and whether it provided any real benefit to science were put aside as the US breathed a sigh of relief.

Indeed, the two-and-a-half years since the Columbia disaster have been a time of intense self-examination for Nasa and for supporters of manned flight missions. Such was the desire to return to space, officials had said they were even prepared to bend its safety rules.

Just minutes before take-off, launch director Mike Leinbach told Cmdr Collins and her crew: "On behalf of the many millions of people who believe so deeply in what we do, good luck, Godspeed ­ and have a little fun."

Two hours later, the commander spoke with mission control. "Our thanks to everybody for all the super work that's been done over the past two-and-a-half years to get us flying again."