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Discovery Shuttle Lifts Off on Space Station Mission


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The space shuttle Discovery is in orbit after blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida just about half an hour ago. The seven-member crew are taking supplies to the International Space Station. They will also be testing modifications to the shuttle made after the Columbia disaster two and a half years ago. And maybe the most significant thing is that this launch is happening at all. It is the first launch since that disaster in 2003. NPR's science correspondent David Kestenbaum watched the launch in Florida and joins us now.

And, David, how'd it go?


Well, it went according to plan so far. The countdown ticked down to zero and they--the first thing they do is they fire--they ignite the main engines which are what combine liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, just to make sure those are working. Because then the next thing they do is they light the solid rocket boosters, which are two booster rockets on the side there, and once you light those, there is no turning them off. So those carry the space shuttle up about two minutes, then those fall off, and then after that, they're riding on the main engine. And from ground, it was--I was impressed by the light, it was incredibly bright. You had to really shade your eyes from the light from the engines. There was a loud roar, and it went up in the sky and left a cloud trailing all the way down to the ground, which is a strange sight.

INSKEEP: NASA made no secret of the fact that they were trying to learn from past mistakes, learn from the last disaster. How do we find out over the course of the coming days--how do they check to make sure that everything is going well?

KESTENBAUM: Well, one of the things they're--of course, the problem with Columbia was that a piece of foam broke off during launch and struck one of the wings and it cracked a hole in the wing. And so during re-entry, hot gas crept in there and the shuttle broke apart. So one of the things they're doing this time is really trying to photograph an image of the whole launch from start until orbit, and they're going to go back and pore over those films to see if anything did come off from the engines and see if anything did strike the wings. And also when they get up into orbit, they're going to look very carefully at the undersurface of the wings and the edge of the wings and the nose to make sure there are no cracks and there is no damage.

INSKEEP: What do they do if they find a crack?

KESTENBAUM: They do have some repair techniques that they're going to be testing up there on sort of extra pieces that they'll then bring back down. But if they do find a sizable crack or a hole, something that would be a problem, they are going to--the astronauts will stay on the space station, NASA will send up a second space shuttle, and the one that's up there, Discovery, will be de-orbited and will burn up coming back in. They're not going to take any chances.

INSKEEP: David Kestenbaum, this has to be asked. This is a very small community of astronauts. It seems quite likely that all seven people on board this shuttle--or many of them anyway--would have known the seven who died in 2003. Many other people--Mission Control would have known them. How has that fact affected people's moods and people's determination over these last few days?

KESTENBAUM: Well, I spoke to the woman who was the manager for the Discovery shuttle. So each of the shuttles actually has an individual manager who is just responsible for them, period. They're tied to them when they go up, when they come down, when they're in the shop, when they're getting modifications. And behind her, there are also untold numbers of workers who also have particular attachments to the machines themselves and certainly to the astronauts who are going up. She was very confident but, you know, it had been two and a half years and everybody admits to being a little nervous.

INSKEEP: How important is this mission to the success of the shuttle program overall?

KESTENBAUM: NASA officials have said that if there was--something catastrophic happened during this mission, it would probably be the end of the shuttle program and would at least significantly delay President Bush's plans to go back to the moon and go on to Mars. So there was an enormous amount riding on this. You know, they've lost two shuttles already.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, of course, that all reports indicate that things are proceeding safely. We saw a spectacular launch of the shuttle Discovery earlier this morning.

David, thanks very much.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR science correspondent David Kestenbaum at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.