Piers rockets back into space

British astronaut Piers Sellers rode Independence Day’s biggest firework today as the shuttle Discovery finally rocketed into space.

It was third time lucky for the shuttle because two previous launch attempts on Saturday and Sunday were scrubbed because of bad weather. The shuttle soared from launch pad 39B at 7.37 pm UK time sending Piers and his six crewmates on a mission to the International Space Station.

Piers’ wife Mandy, 50, from Hebden Bridge, West Yorks, will be at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to watch the launch with their children Imogen, 21, and Tom, 18. Also there was Piers’s 78-year-old mother Lyndsay, from Elstead, Surrey, and the astronaut’s four brothers.

Earlier, at 3.49pm UK time, they waved flags as they walked to board their AstroVan for the seven-mile ride to the launchpad. It was the first time Nasa has launched on Independence Day.

Piers, 51, climbed through the hatch to take his centre seat on the shuttle’s mid-deck at 4.43pm UK time. Then just over an hour before lift-off, launch director Mike Leinbach wished Commander Steve Lindsey good luck and God speed. The rest of the crew are German astronaut Thomas Reiter, 48, Mark Kelly, Michael Fossum, Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson.

Nasa were taking a calculated gamble in flying the shuttle because the space agency has still not fixed a design flaw that allows falling debris to hit the shuttle. It caused the Columbia disaster in 2003 which killed seven astronauts on re-entry. When the shuttle programme was restarted a year ago, more debris was seen to fall as Discovery took off.

Last night’s launch, mission STS-121, finally went ahead despite the discovery of a crack in insulating foam on the shuttle’s main fuel tank. Nasa said senior managers were unanimous in deciding the mission should go ahead and that the broken foam was not a threat to the astronauts’ safety.

Ten minutes after launch, with the Discovery flying at more than four miles per second, the shuttle separated from its main fuel tank. Cdr Lindsey manouevred the craft so that digital and film camera embedded inits belly could photograph the discarded tank to check for any foam damage. Then astronauts Mike Fossum and Stephanie Wilson undid their safety straps so that they could use video and still cameras to take more pictures.

An early examination of video taken during tonight’s lift-off showed small pieces of debris shedding from the external fuel tank about three minutes after launch. But there was no indication that any had hit the shuttle.

Father-of-two Piers, from Crowborough, East Sussex, is due to make at least two space walks on the 13-day mission to the International Space Station. He will help carry out an inspection of the ship’s wings and hull for any damage and practise repair techniques.

Nasa were keen for shuttle missions to resume so that Nasa can complete building of the International Space Station by 2010, the deadline set by President Bush in his Vision for Space Exploration. Nasa has achieved two major triumphs on Independence Day before. The Pathfinder probe landed on Mars on July 4 in 1997 and a comet was blasted by the Deep Impact mission a year ago.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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