Space Shuttle Atlantis - June 8th, 2007
REPORT THAT DEBRIS FELL FROM SHUTTLE AS IT LAUNCHED...
The countdown was nearly flawless, but it appeared that something fell from the tank more than two minutes into the ascent, several seconds after the solid rocket boosters separated from Atlantis. Falling debris from the tank poses the most danger to the shuttle from liftoff to around that point in the ascent.
Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said that foam did fall off the tank, as expected, but that it happened too late in the ascent to be a problem.
"The tank performed magnificently, despite having several thousands repairs to it," Hale said.
The shuttle smoothly settled into orbit around the Earth.
During the 11-day flight, Atlantis' astronauts will deliver a new segment and a pair of solar panels to the orbiting outpost. They will also swap out a member of the space station's crew.
The mission had been delayed for three months after a freak storm at the launch pad hurled golf-ball-size hail at Atlantis' 154-foot fuel tank, putting thousands of pockmarks in its vital insulating foam and one of the orbiter's wings.
"It took us a while to get to this point, but the ship is in great shape," launch director Mike Leinbach said just before liftoff.
Over the past few months, NASA has also seen the arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in an alleged plot to kidnap her rival for a shuttle pilot's affections; a murder-suicide at the Johnson Space Center in Houston; and the derailment of a train carrying rocket-booster segments for future shuttle launches. More recently, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has come under fire for suggesting that global warming may not be a problem worth wrestling with.
"We've had a tough six months for a number of different reasons," Griffin told The Associated Press hours before the liftoff. "We'd love to have a textbook launch and a textbook mission. It would just make everybody feel good."
NASA has not had a shuttle launch since December.
After the hailstorm, Atlantis was rolled back to the hangar, and the space agency decided to sand down and patch the gouge marks with foam rather than swap out the entire tank.
The foam has been of paramount concern to NASA ever since the Columbia disaster in 2003, when a chunk of the insulating material broke off during liftoff and gashed a wing, allowing fiery gases to penetrate the shuttle during its return to Earth. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.
Although the top of the tank Friday looked like a beat-up old car that had undergone bodywork in someone's garage, officials said it was safe.
"We have done extensive tests and analysis," said LeRoy Cain, launch integration manager.
There was no immediate word from NASA on whether any dangerous pieces of foam fell off the tank during the ascent.
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