The space shuttle Discovery has lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida returning NASA to manned space flight. The launch of Discovery comes two-and-a-half years after the shuttle Columbia was destroyed while re-entering earth's atmosphere, killing its seven-member crew.
It was the launch that NASA had hoped for as Discovery lifted off into space carrying a seven-member crew captained by Eileen Collins, NASA's most experienced female pilot.
Fears of a malfunctioning fuel sensor that grounded Discovery's launch two weeks ago failed to materialize. NASA engineers rewired the sensor network, and said even if one of the shuttle's four fuels sensors failed, or performed erratically, the shuttle could still be launched.
NASA has spent an estimated $1 billion to redesign the shuttle after Columbia was destroyed in February 2003. During that launch, a three-kilo piece of insulation fell off the shuttle's external fuel tank, causing a crack in the shuttle's lift wing, which allowed hot gases to enter and destroy the shuttle when it re-entered earth's atmosphere.
A panel that examined the disaster faulted NASA for what it described as a lax attitude towards safety at the space agency. In response NASA officials redesigned many launch procedures, including installing more than 100 cameras at the launch site to record every aspect of a shuttle launch. NASA administrator Michael Griffin says while space flight is inherently dangerous, the shuttle program is an important early step in man's exploration of space.
"I think the proper purpose of the United States Civil space program is to explore, develop, understand and discover the solar system and extend the range of places where human beings live and work," he said.
Mr. Griffin says unlike most previous shuttle missions Discovery's crew will not carry out extensive scientific experiments during their time in space. Most of their mission will be spent delivering supplies to the International Space Station and carrying out extensive tests on some of the safety procedures designed to make shuttle missions safer.