WORLD / America

Space shuttle Discovery soars on 3rd launch try
Updated: 2006-07-05 08:39

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - The U.S. space shuttle Discovery blasted off from its seaside Florida launch pad on Tuesday on a do-or-die mission for NASA's beleaguered shuttle program and the half-built International Space Station.

The shuttle and its seven-member crew lifted off at 2:38 p.m. EDT (1838 GMT), following two postponements over the weekend because of poor weather at the Kennedy Space Center.

The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 4, 2006.
The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 4, 2006. [Reuters]

"America is ready to return the space shuttle to flight," launch director Mike Leinbach said shortly before the 115th shuttle mission and the second flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster blasted off.

Officials said there were no initial signs of serious problems with the shuttle's foam insulation, which has plagued NASA in recent years and caused the deadly breakup of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. Further examination was scheduled for later Tuesday.

NASA needs a successful mission to resume construction of the planned $100 billion space station, a project sponsored by 16 nations. Assembly of the outpost has been on hold since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

NASA had hoped to resume station construction last year following the first post-Columbia mission but the shuttle's fuel tank, like the one on Columbia, shed large pieces of insulating foam during launch. Managers grounded the fleet again for repairs.

Columbia was destroyed when a 1.67-pound (756-gram) chunk of foam broke off the fuel tank and smashed into the ship's left wing. The damage was undetected until after Columbia broke apart 16 days later as it flew through the atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Another accident or serious problem on the current shuttle mission could ground the fleet permanently.

NASA will get a preliminary look at how Discovery's tank fared during launch later Tuesday when imaging experts pore over hundreds of photographs and videotapes taken during the shuttle's climb into orbit.

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