Discovery lifted off at 9:39 a.m. central time today following a flawless countdown. Over the next 11 days, Discovery's seven person crew will demonstrate techniques for inspecting and protecting the Shuttle's thermal protection system and continue assembly of the International Space Station. Today's launch was the first for a Shuttle since the loss of Columbia and its crew in February 2003.
Discovery's climb to orbit was extensively documented through a system of new and upgraded ground-based cameras, radar systems and airborne cameras aboard high altitude aircraft. The imagery captured of Discovery's launch, and additional imagery from laser systems on a new boom extension for the Shuttle's robot arm as well as data from sensors embedded in the Shuttle's wings, will help mission managers determine the health of Discovery's thermal protection system over the next several days prior to its scheduled Aug. 7 landing.
Less than nine minutes after launch, Commander Eileen Collins, Pilot Jim Kelly and Mission Specialists Soichi Noguchi (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency), Steve Robinson, Andy Thomas, Wendy Lawrence and Charlie Camarda were in orbit and ready to open the payload bay doors and unstow their gear in the crew compartment. Moments after main engine cutoff, Noguchi and Thomas used handheld video and digital still cameras to document the external tank after it separated from the Shuttle. That imagery, and imagery from cameras in the Shuttle's umbilical well where the tank was connected, will also be downlinked for review by mission managers and engineers in the ongoing analysis of the tank's condition following ascent.
The crew plans to unberth and test Discovery's robot arm today before beginning an eight-hour sleep period at shortly before 4 p.m. CDT. The arm will be used today to collect imagery of the clearances between the Shuttle's Ku-band dish antenna that provides high data rate telemetry and television, and the end of a new 50-foot boom moored to the starboard sill of the spaceship that will be used tomorrow while grappled to the robot arm for a day-long inspection of the leading edges of Discovery's wings. That survey will help to insure that the wings did not incur any damage during launch.
At the time of launch, the International Space Station was 225 miles above the southern Indian Ocean west of Australia as Discovery began its chase for a docking at 6:18 a.m. CDT Thursday. Aboard the Station, Expedition 11 Commander Sergei Krikalev and Flight Engineer John Phillips were completing preparations for the arrival of the first Shuttle since Nov. 25, 2002.
When Discovery nears the Station early Thursday morning, Krikalev and Phillips will use digital cameras and high-powered 800MM and 400MM lenses to photograph Discovery's thermal protective tiles and key areas around its main and nose landing gear doors.
Housed in the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module in Discovery's cargo bay is 15 tons of hardware and supplies that will be transferred to the Station after the Shuttle docks to the complex.
The astronauts will be awakened late tonight at 11:39 p.m. CDT to begin their first full day in orbit.