Discovery shuttle blasts off

The US shuttle Discovery finally blasted off into space today, taking British-born astronaut Piers Sellers with it.

The US shuttle Discovery finally blasted off into space today, taking British-born astronaut Piers Sellers with it.

Its 12-day mission, already delayed twice by weather problems, got under way after a day of inspections and debates over safety, sparked when a crack was found in the foam insulation of the shuttle’s fuel tank.

Inspectors spotted the five-inch crack yesterday, and also discovered that a three-inch piece of foam had popped out of the area.

But after several hours of further checks and meetings, officials decided to continue with the launch as planned, concluding that the breakage would not cause further losses as the spaceship rode to orbit.

Discovery launched from the Kennedy Flight Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2.38pm local time (7.38pm Irish time) in “beautiful” weather conditions. It was NASA’s first ever Independence Day liftoff.

Dr Sellers, who is originally from Crowborough, East Sussex, is one of seven astronauts on board the shuttle.

The 51-year-old will be making his second spaceflight, which will include two or possibly three spacewalks.

His mother Lindsay, from Elstead, Surrey, and brothers Gavan, Guy and Paddy, have flown to America to watch the take-off.

Also there are his wife Mandy, originally from Hebden Bridge, West Yorks, and their two children, Imogen, 21, and Tom, 18. The family live in Houston, Texas.

“Discovery’s ready, the weather’s beautiful, America is ready to return the space shuttle to flight. So good luck and Godspeed, Discovery,” launch director Mike Leinbach said just before liftoff.

Commander Steven Lindsey radioed back: “I can’t think of a better place to be here on the Fourth of July.”

Today’s space shuttle launch was the US’s first in almost a year, and only the second since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

All seven astronauts on board died when the craft disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

A chunk of insulation foam had broken off the external tank on lift-off and punched a hole in the vehicle’s wing.

The decision to send Discovery to the International Space Station, (ISS) where it will deliver supplies and equipment and drop off Thomas Reiter for a six-month stay, has been controversial.

The vessel shed foam when it was launched in July last year and meeting held two weeks ago to set this year’s lift-off date was split on whether the problem was fixed.

Bryan O’Connor, NASA’s chief safety officer, and chief engineer Christopher Scolese, recommended that the shuttle should not fly until further design changes were made to 34 areas on the fuel tank known as ice-frost ramps, where where small pieces of foam has come off during previous launches.

But they also said the risk was only to the shuttle and not the crew, and managers decided to go ahead.

They conceded some foam might fall off the tank, but said they did not think they would be large enough to cause damage.

There is a 2010 deadline to finish building the international space station and end the shuttle programme.

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