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Shuttle returns to flight

Cape Canaveral, Fla. The first U.S. space shuttle to fly in more than 2 years lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning at exactly 10:39, in what NASA has called its Return to Flight mission.

As Discovery soared through the scattered clouds near Kennedy Space Center, the ground rumbled as far as six kilometres away from the launch pad, and a cloud of smoke and dust spread slowly spread out over the marshes of Merritt Island on Cape Canaveral.

Within minutes, the shuttle was just a glowing ember at the end of that giant column of smoke, at which point the assembled media and other observers broke into a spontaneous round of applause. After 8 minutes, the solid rocket boosters had separated, the external tank had been jettisoned, the main engines had shut off and the shuttle was coasting through space at more than 27,000 kilometres an hour on its way toward a planned rendezvous with the International Space Station

It is the first launch since the space shuttle Columbia blew up on re-entry in February of 2003, killing all seven of the crew members on board and dealing a severe blow to the U.S. space program.


NASA has spent the past two years investigating the cause of the Columbia explosion which turned out to be a piece of foam that came off the external fuel tank and damaged the shuttle's wing and then redesigning both the spacecraft itself and the culture at the space agency, which a task force said contributed to the loss of Columbia.

Among other changes to the shuttle, the way that insulating foam is applied to the external tank was changed, and heaters were installed to prevent a build-up of ice that could damage the spacecraft.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said, "I ask you all to take note of what you saw here today the power and the majesty of launch, of course, but also ... the sheer gall, the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team, who pulled this program out of the depths of despair 2 years ago and made it fly."

NASA has also installed an extension to the Canadarm, a special boom that will allow the shuttle's crew to scan the surface of the craft for damage, using a 3D-laser camera designed in Ottawa.

"This is a big day for Canada, and a big day for NASA," Canadian astronaut David Williams said in an interview at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday morning. "Getting back to space is tremendously important."

Mr. Williams flew on board the Columbia in 1998 and is scheduled to fly again next year.

He and other Canadian astronauts such as Chris Hadfield and Julie Payette say a return to space is also way of paying tribute to the crew of the Columbia a way of showing that they did not die in vain.

"They would want us to continue," Mr. Williams said. Like most of the other astronauts, the Saskatchewan native was close friends with several of the crew members, three of whom were in his class at NASA after they were accepted into the program.

He said "the launch was fantastic we had perfect weather and a flawless launch. ... It's great to see the space shuttle back on orbit."

Ms. Payette, who is working as a CAPCOM capsule communications officer at Johnson Space Center in Houston for the Discovery mission, says she still has two African violet plants that belonged to Columbia crew member Laurel Salton Clark.

Ms. Payette agrees that the crew of Columbia "would have wanted us to get back to flight as soon as possible." Like the rest of the astronauts, they believed that research and exploration in space was important enough that it was worth the risks involved in flying the shuttle, said Ms. Payette, who flew aboard Columbia in 1999 and was the first woman aboard the International Space Station.

Discovery was originally supposed to lift off in May, but problems with ice on a fuel line and a faulty sensor in the external tank caused NASA to reschedule the mission for July 13. That launch was scrubbed a little over two hours before liftoff, after a pre-launch test revealed another faulty fuel sensor in the shuttle's external tank.

More than a dozen technical teams at NASA have spent the past two weeks working on the sensor problem, removing and replacing parts of the shuttle's electrical system, on the assumption that interference from some of the new additions to the spacecraft were causing the sensor to malfunction. The agency said this morning that there were no further issues with the sensor during a routine test.

The fuel sensors are used to monitor the level of liquid hydrogen in the shuttle's external tank, and to send a signal to the shuttle's engines to throttle back if the fuel level gets too low. If the engines were to shut down improperly due to a lack of fuel, NASA engineers say it could cause catastrophic damage to the shuttle and possibly destroy it.

Source - The Global Mail
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