Space shuttle soars from Florida after long delay
Cape Canaveral (Fla), Sep 10: Space shuttle Atlantis roared off its seaside Florida launch pad today after two weeks of delays, setting the stage for NASA to resume assembly of the International Space Station.
The shuttle's fuel tank appeared to shed at least two pieces of insulating foam during the climb into orbit, one of which may have struck Atlantis, but Mission Control said it was unlikely to have caused any damage.
''It didn't look like there was any damage,'' astronaut communicator Tony Antonelli told the shuttle crew.
Television pictures showed debris broke away four and five minutes after liftoff -- well past the time it would pose a threat to the shuttle. By then, Atlantis was nearly out of the atmosphere so the debris would have little aerodynamic force.
Detailed inspections of the ship's heat shield, mandated after the deadly 2003 Columbia accident, will begin tomorrow.
Columbia was damaged by a piece of tank foam insulation that fell off during launch and hit the ship's wing. The shuttle broke apart 16 days later as it flew through the atmosphere for landing, killing all seven crew members.
Since the accident, NASA has flown two missions to test fuel tank redesigns and in-flight inspection and heat shield repair techniques.
Atlantis' mission is the first to return the shuttle to space station assembly, a task that has been on hold since the accident.
With just four years to finish the job before the shuttles are retired, NASA was eager to get Atlantis off the ground, which it finally did at 11:15 a.m. (2045hrs IST) after repeated delays due to weather and technical glitches.
''The (launch) countdown went extremely smoothly, which probably shouldn't be surprising considering how many times we tried it,'' launch director Mike Leinbach said at a briefing.
Atlantis soared through pockets of puffy white clouds as it headed up over the Atlantic Ocean. Its hydrogen-fueled engines catapulted the spaceship to a speed of 28,160 kph and it later settled into an orbital perch about 350km above the planet.
Today was the final possible day for the launch before NASA would have faced a lengthy postponement while Russia flies a replacement crew to the space station.
The six astronauts aboard the shuttle face a jam-packed, 11-day schedule. In addition to inspections, they have a complicated installation to perform on the space station.
The shuttle carries a 372-million dollars truss segment that contains the space station's second set of solar arrays and a rotary joint so the panels can track the sun.
The chore requires careful coordination between the shuttle and the station's robotic cranes, oversight from NASA's Mission Control in Houston, as well as the full attention of the shuttle and station crews.
Three spacewalks are planned during the flight. NASA has one extra day available if problems develop during the solar array deployment or if engineers need the crew to make additional inspections of the ship's heat shield.
Atlantis must leave the station by September 18 to clear the way for the arrival two days later of a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying two new station crew members and Iranian-born American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to fly as a tourist to the outpost.
Atlantis is scheduled to return to the Kennedy Space Center before dawn on September 20.
Crew members aboard are commander Brent Jett, 47; pilot Chris Ferguson, 45; flight engineer Dan Burbank, 45; lead spacewalker Joe Tanner, 56; Canadian space agency astronaut Steve MacLean, 51; and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, 43. She and Ferguson are the only rookie fliers.