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Discovery astronauts start inspections; NASA managers call shuttle launch a success

The crew of Discovery began their first full day in space Wednesday preparing for one of the most comprehensive in-flight inspections of any shuttle flight.

Hurtling toward a Thursday rendezvous with the international space station, the shuttle’s astronauts began deploying a boom they would use to inspect Discovery for any damage from debris shed by the external fuel tank during liftoff.

Live video of the Independence Day launch showed some small chunks of debris falling from the tank, but shuttle managers said they weren’t worried.

The astronauts were taking more images of the shuttle’s wings and nose cap on Wednesday using laser, digital and video cameras attached to a 50-foot boom. The new inspection techniques, implemented after the Columbia disaster, can spot damage as small as an eighth of an inch.

“We saw nothing that gives us any kind of concern about the health of the crew or the vehicle,” said Wayne Hale, shuttle program manager.

The seven-member Discovery crew awoke early Wednesday to sounds of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes referred to as the black national anthem.

“That one is particularly dear to my heart because … after the day of our nation’s independence, it’s very fitting because it reminds us that anyone and everyone can participate in the space program,” astronaut Stephanie Wilson, only the second black woman in space, radio to Mission Control.

Astronaut Mike Fossum sent Mission Control in Houston video showing him, pilot Mark Kelly and specialist Lisa Nowak in the flight deck during Tuesday’s launch.

First-time fliers Nowak and Fossum gave each other a gloved congratulatory handshake and thumbs up during the ascent. Once in orbit, Nowak, serving as flight engineer, took notes while Fossum and specialist Stephanie Wilson unstrapped themselves to photograph the external fuel tank as it fell away from the shuttle.

The Day 2 inspections, expected to take about 6 1/2 hours, were ordered after a chunk of hard insulating foam from the external fuel tank struck Columbia on lift off in 2003 and damaged its wing, allowing fiery gases to enter the spacecraft during reentry. All seven astronauts were killed as the shuttle broke up over Texas.

Shuttle managers said early video images of Discovery’s liftoff showing small pieces of foam breaking away — and one striking the spacecraft — were not troubling.

About three minutes after liftoff, as many as five pieces of debris were seen flying off the tank, and another piece of foam popped off a bit later, Mission Control told the crew. The latter piece struck the belly of Discovery, but NASA assured the seven astronauts it was no concern because of the timing.

Hale said Discovery was so high when the pieces came off that there wasn’t enough air to accelerate the foam into the shuttle and cause damage.

The astronauts reported seeing what they described as a large piece of cloth tumbling away from Discovery soon after reaching orbit. It looked like one of the thermal blankets that protects the shuttle, they said, but Mission Control told them it was likely ice and that a similar observation was made during Discovery’s flight a year ago.

The mission for Discovery’s crew is to test shuttle-inspection techniques, deliver supplies to the international space station and drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter for a six-month stay. Astronauts Piers Sellers and Fossum plan to conduct two spacewalks, and possibly a third one, which would extend the mission by a day.

On the Net:

NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov