CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A patched-up Atlantis blasted off with seven astronauts yesterday on the first space shuttle flight of 2007.
Its big orange fuel tank covered with white blotches where the foam insulation had been repaired, the spaceship rose from its seaside launch pad with a roar and climbed into a clear sky at 7:38 p.m., setting a course for the international space station.
The countdown was nearly flawless, but it appeared that something fell from the tank more than two minutes into the ascent, several seconds after the solid rocket boosters separated from Atlantis. Falling debris from the tank poses the most danger to the shuttle from liftoff to around that point in the ascent.
Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said foam did fall off the tank, but it happened too late in the ascent to be a problem. "The tank performed magnificently, despite having several thousands repairs to it," Hale said. The shuttle smoothly settled into orbit.
During the 11-day flight, the Atlantis astronauts will deliver a new segment and a pair of solar panels to the orbiting outpost. They will also swap out a member of the space station's crew.
NASA has had several troubles in recent months, including the arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in an alleged plot to kidnap a rival for a shuttle pilot's affections; a murder-suicide at the Johnson Space Center; and the derailment of a train with rocket-booster parts.