Shuttle Discovery's First Full Day In Space

Shuttle Discovery chased the international space

station in orbit Wednesday as its seven astronauts geared up for a

laser inspection of their ship's wings.

It was the first full day of what NASA considers to be the most

complicated space station construction mission yet. The shuttle was

to reach the station Thursday.

NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, said after

Tuesday's liftoff that the astronauts face a tremendous series of

challenges, but noted, "I can't think of a better start to this

mission than what we got today." It was the third on-time shuttle

launch in a row.

At least six pieces of foam insulation came off Discovery's fuel

tank during liftoff, but because that occurred after the crucial

first two minutes, the debris posed no risk to the shuttle,

officials said.

"It's preliminary only, but it did look like a clean ascent,"

Mission Control informed Discovery's commander Pamela Melroy, only

the second woman to lead a shuttle crew.

Astronauts woke up early Wednesday to "Lord of the Dance,"

which begins with the lyrics "I danced in the morning when the

earth was begun, I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun."

Melroy said it was one of her favorites songs and thanked her

husband, Doug, for tipping off Mission Control.

Melroy and her crew were to use a laser-tipped inspection boom

Wednesday to check Discovery's vulnerable wings and nose, standard

procedure since the Columbia accident.

They will go extra slow, however, for a thorough check of three

wing panels that may have cracks just beneath a protective coating.

Even though NASA's own safety group wanted to delay the launch,

senior managers decided a week ago that wing repairs were


NASA is extra sensitive about launch debris and the shuttle's

thermal shielding ever since a hole in the wing brought down

Columbia in 2003, the result of a strike by a slab of fuel-tank


A much smaller piece of foam broke off a bracket on the fuel

tank during the last launch in August, possibly along with ice, and

gouged Endeavour's belly. That led to changes to Discovery's fuel

tank to prevent dangerous ice buildup from the super-cold


Discovery's primary payload is an Italian-built compartment,

about the size of a small bus, that will serve as the docking port

for science labs due to arrive beginning in December. Italian

astronaut Paolo Nespoli is personally delivering the pressurized

chamber, called Harmony.

During their 1½-week station visit, the astronauts must install

Harmony, relocate a giant girder and set of solar wings, extend

those solar wings and radiators, and test a thermal tile repair

kit. Five spacewalks are planned, which will be the most ever

conducted while a shuttle is docked at the station.

Astronaut Daniel Tani will move into the station once Discovery

docks. He will replace Clayton Anderson, who will return to Earth

on the shuttle after five months in space.