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At last, Atlantis heads to space station

The launch was delayed in February after hail damaged foam on the shuttle's fuel tank.

June 09, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

The shuttle Atlantis roared into space Friday on an 11-day mission to add solar power arrays and a new truss segment to the International Space Station.

The nearly 10-minute jump to space from Cape Canaveral in Florida began at 4:38 p.m. PDT and appeared to be trouble-free. No serious problems were noted by the crew or ground control operators.

"We had a very good countdown and launch," said NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden. "It was a really good day for NASA."

The only potential problem occurred several minutes into the flight, when onboard cameras caught an image of what appeared to be foam flaking off the external fuel tank just after the solid rocket boosters separated from the shuttle.

Foam loss has become a serious concern since the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on reentry in 2003, after a piece of foam flaked off the tank and tore a hole in the left wing.

Atlantis' launch -- the first of the year -- was delayed after hail in February damaged the foam on the tank.

The shuttle program manager, N. Wayne Hale Jr., said a "preliminary analysis" of the incident indicated the chunk had not hit the craft.

It occurred just after what is considered the most sensitive time during launch, when aerodynamic forces can accelerate the lightweight foam to destructive velocities.

After the external fuel tank was jettisoned, members of the seven-person crew took pictures of it to check for other foam losses. Officials said they would have a better idea Sunday of whether there was anything of concern, after safety experts had analyzed all the data from the launch.

Friday's launch kicked off the 28th trip to space for Atlantis, which carries four rookies and three veterans, including the commander, Rick Sturckow, a Marine colonel with two flights under his belt.

Air Force Col. Lee Archambault is in the pilot's seat. The other crew members are mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Steven Swanson, John "Danny" Olivas, Jim Reilly and Clayton Anderson. Anderson will remain behind on the space station when Atlantis returns to Earth, replacing Sunita Williams, who has spent six months there.

On June 15, Williams will break the record for the longest tenure in space by a female astronaut, surpassing Shannon Lucid.

"We need to clean up a bit, but we're almost ready for our visitors," Williams told controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The mission will include three spacewalks by Swanson, Forrester, Reilly and Olivas to install a 17 1/2 -ton starboard truss segment on the space station. The new truss, a mirror image of the port truss installed last year, includes a new set of solar arrays.

When operational, the 240-foot-long arrays will provide power to science labs that will be delivered over the next two years.

The flight is the 21st mission to the space station as NASA carries out a promise to its international partners to finish construction of the space station before retiring the aging shuttle fleet by 2010.

The next shuttle mission is scheduled for August, followed by missions in October and December.

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