CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA gave the shuttle Discovery a majestic Fourth of July send-off and said early signs showed the spacecraft to be in good shape, despite once again being struck by the flying foam that has plagued the program.
The first-ever Independence Day manned launch came after two weather delays and over objections from those within NASA who argued for more fuel-tank repairs. Shuttle managers said early video images of liftoff showing small pieces of foam breaking away -- and one even striking the spacecraft -- were not troubling.
Discovery thundered away from its seaside pad at 2:38 p.m. EDT .
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said of the launch: ``They don't get much better than this."
It was Griffin who chose to go ahead with the mission over concerns from the space agency's safety officer and chief engineer about foam problems that have dogged the agency since Columbia was doomed by a flyaway chunk of insulation 3 1/2 years ago.
Three minutes after the launch commenced , 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 seemed to strike the belly of Discovery, but NASA assured the seven astronauts it was no concern because of the timing.
Shuttle program manager Wayne 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.
``That is the very raw, preliminary data," he said. ``It will be a while before we get a complete picture of what happened during the ascent."
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 later told them it may have been ice and that a similar observation was made during Discovery's flight a year ago. ``Wow, that's real good news," said shuttle commander Steven Lindsey.
Hale and others on the launch management team were in a jubilant mood over the smooth liftoff.
``No, we did not plan to launch on the Fourth of July, but it sure did work out to be great to launch on Independence Day," Hale said.
Lindsey, an Air Force fighter pilot, was at Discovery's controls and aiming for a Thursday linkup with the international space station.
``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.
``I can't think of a better place to be here on the Fourth of July," radioed Lindsey. ``For all the folks on the Florida east coast, we hope to very soon get you an up-close and personal look at the rocket's red glare."
On Monday, it was unclear for a while whether Discovery would fly at all.
A slice of foam, not much bigger than a crust of bread, fell off an expansion joint on the external fuel tank as the spacecraft sat on the launch pad. Shuttle managers concluded Monday night after intensive engineering analysis that the remaining foam on that part of the tank was solid.
Engineers said the piece -- 3 inches long and just one-10th of an ounce -- was too small to pose a threat even if it had come off during launch and smacked the shuttle. Inspectors devised a long pole with a camera to inspect the joint and found no evidence of further damage. NASA also made sure there was no excessive ice buildup at that spot yesterday.
The shuttle crew includes a Massachusetts woman, mission specialist Stephanie D. Wilson, 39, who grew up in Pittsfield. Along with Navy Commander Lisa Nowak, Wilson will operate the shuttle's 50-foot robotic arm during inspections for any damage.
The other crew members are Navy Commander Mark Kelly, the pilot; Michael Fossum, mission specialist; Piers Sellers, mission specialist; and Thomas Reiter, an astronaut with the European Space Agency.
The fallen foam, although considered harmless, added to the tension already surrounding this mission. NASA's chief engineer and top-ranking safety official objected two weeks ago to the 12-day mission without eliminating lingering dangers from foam loss, considered probable and potentially catastrophic.
They were overruled by shuttle managers and, ultimately, Griffin. He stressed the need to get on with building the half-done, long-overdue space station before the shuttles are retired in 2010 to make way for a moonship, per President Bush's orders.
Griffin said he welcomed the debate over Discovery's launch and acknowledged that the space agency plays the odds with every shuttle liftoff.
``If foam hits the orbiter and doesn't damage it, I'm going to say ho-hum because I know we're going to release foam. The goal is to make sure that the foam is of a small enough size that I know we're not going to hurt anything," Griffin said.
If photos during launch or the flight show serious damage to Discovery, the crew could move into the space station. Then a risky shuttle rescue -- fraught with its own problems -- would have to be mounted. The rescue ship, Atlantis, would face the same potential foam threat at launch. NASA also worked on a possible plan for flying Discovery back to Earth unmanned if necessary.
Many have speculated that if anything happens to Discovery or its crew, the shuttle program could end with this mission, and plans for moon and Mars exploration could be put in jeopardy.
In its flight last July, Discovery experienced dangerous foam loss, though the chunk was smaller than one that slammed into Columbia's left wing, and it missed Discovery altogether.
Just like a year ago, more than 100 cameras and radar were trained on Discovery at liftoff to spot any foam shedding. The intensive picture-taking continued with on-board cameras and the astronauts snapping zoom-in shots upon reaching orbit.
NASA figures it will be nearly a week before it can decisively say whether any debris hit Discovery during launch.