Endeavour finally blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday on its sixth attempt. Officials downplayed the debris that could be seen hitting the shuttle two minutes into the flight.
AFP - Pieces of debris peeled off from Endeavour's external fuel tank as the shuttle blasted off Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center, its sixth bid in recent weeks to reach the orbiting International Space Station.
The shuttle's 6:03 pm (2203 GMT) liftoff followed weeks of delays caused by weather woes and technical troubles.
Soaring spectacularly into the Florida sky, the shuttle accelerated into space faster than the speed of sound, reaching 26,000 kilometers (16,150 miles) per hour in less than nine minutes.
Eight minutes after launch the shuttle entered orbit 225 kilometers (140 miles) above Earth, and a few moments later the shuttle could be seen successfully separating from the external fuel tank.
A US space agency official downplayed the potential of damage caused by debris that could be seen hitting the shuttle about two minutes into the flight in images broadcast on NASA TV.
The debris could be ice or foam that broke off from the external fuel tank, said Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for space operations.
"We had some foam loss events," Gerstenmaier told reporters. "You can clearly see, on the front part of the orbiter, some white indications where the tiles were dinged.
"We don't consider those an issue for us, those are probably coating losses," he said.
Gerstenmaier however said that specialists will scrutinize the images, and later the shuttle exterior will be closely examined by its crew and that of the International Space Station.
"The issues will be in the back of the vehicle and we'll take a look at those when we do the roll-pitch maneuver that's planned," Gerstenmaier said.
NASA has been cautious about conditions for the space shuttle's exit and return since the shuttle Columbia blew apart some 20,000 meters (65,500 feet) above the Earth in 2003 as it was returning from a 16-day space mission to land in Florida.
A chunk of insulation that broke off from the shuttle's external fuel tank during takeoff had gouged Columbia's left wing heat shield, allowing superheated gases to melt the shuttle's internal structure, leading to its explosion and the death of its seven astronauts.
Earlier, NASA's relief was evident when it became clear that weather would not cause another costly liftoff delay.
"Persistence pays off, good luck and God speed," said launch director Pete Nickolenko.
Endeavour's launch has been scrubbed three times since Saturday due to bad weather. Two earlier attempts in June were aborted after potentially hazardous fuel leaks were discovered.
The aborted attempts left the cash-strapped US space agency footing 4.5 million dollars in extra costs.
NASA said it hoped the launch would help fulfill "Japan's hope for an out-of-this-world space laboratory," as the shuttle delivers state-of-the-art equipment to conduct experiments in the vacuum of space.
The shuttle and its seven-member crew is expected to reach the ISS on Friday, where they are to complete the assembly of the Japanese Kibo laboratory.
The six Americans and one Canadian onboard Endeavour are scheduled to install a platform on the ISS for astronauts to conduct the experiments 350 kilometers (220 miles) above Earth's surface.
The ISS should be completed in 2010, also the target date for the retirement of the US fleet of three space shuttles.
The shuttle crew includes Canadian Julie Payette, an electrical and information engineer who has been in space before and is the only woman on board.
She was the final astronaut to board Endeavour Wednesday, blowing a kiss to NASA TV cameras before stepping through the cockpit hatch.
American aerospace engineer Tim Kopra, 46, will replace Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, spending several months aboard the orbiting station.
He would be the latest addition to the permanent crew of the ISS, which is a joint collaboration between 16 different countries.
Date created : 2009-07-16