CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Shuttle Discovery's astronauts will inspect much of their ship's heat shielding for signs of damage today after a Fourth of July liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, the first shuttle flight in almost a year.
Mission managers expressed confidence that the inspections will confirm indications from launch photography that the shuttle's fuel tank did not shed dangerous pieces of foam insulation as happened on three of the past four flights.
Footage from a video camera mounted on the tank showed several small objects breaking off at five different times during Discovery's 8 1/2 -minute climb to orbit, en route to the International Space Station.
However, all of the events occurred after the first two minutes and 15 seconds of flight, the time when the shuttle is vulnerable to critical strikes from foam. Also, only one piece of foam might have exceeded NASA's acceptable size limits.
"I think the tank performed very, very well, indeed," said Wayne Hale, NASA's space shuttle program manager.
Early indications of no major foam loss appeared to vindicate the decision of senior NASA managers, who proceeded with Discovery's launch despite considerable disagreement, including "no-go" votes from the agency's head of safety and chief engineer.
Before the flight, technicians removed a large foam ramp from the tank that lost a 1-pound chunk of debris during Discovery's liftoff last July. However, three dozen smaller ramps flew unchanged despite concern they could shed foam resulting in potentially catastrophic damage.
One of the mission's primary objectives was to flight-test the modifications to the tank.
"We've worked very hard to eliminate, insofar as possible, the major losses of foam off the tank," Hale said. "The tank performed very well this time."
Another issue that drew considerable scrutiny yesterday was astronaut Mike Fossum's report that a large piece of debris floated away from the shuttle after the ship's spent fuel tank was jettisoned in orbit. Fossum said the object looked like a 4- to-8-foot section of the heat-resistant fabric that insulates the shuttle's upper surfaces.
Engineers watching video of the object later determined it was ice from the shuttle's main engine bells.
Storm clouds caused mission managers to cancel liftoff attempts Saturday and Sunday. Then, in a routine inspection after the second launch scrub, workers discovered a small crack in foam insulation covering a bracket on the tank. They also found a 3-inch chunk of foam on the launch platform that fell from the area.
NASA spent Monday analyzing the issue and concluded the shuttle could fly without repairs. With the technical issue cleared, mission managers came into yesterday's attempt with the best weather forecast of the launch campaign.
Discovery's crew of seven awoke shortly after 4 a.m. Boarding their silver van for the launch pad, six crew members waved tiny American flags. European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter waved the flag of his native Germany.
Once strapped tightly in their seats, the astronauts got the word from launch director Mike Leinbach that all systems were "go" for an on-time liftoff. The countdown had ticked down with no significant issues.
Today, astronauts will use a 50-foot boom equipped with a laser sensor and camera to check Discovery's heat shielding for damage. Attached to the shuttle's robot arm, the boom will take images of the shuttle's outer surfaces that will be sent to flight controllers for analysis.
After the inspections, the next order of business will be Discovery's planned rendezvous with the International Space Station. Discovery Commander Steve Lindsey is scheduled to dock the shuttle to the outpost at about 10:50 a.m. tomorrow.
Michael Cabbage and Robyn Shelton write for the Orlando Sentinel.