Discovery and seven astronauts blasted off Tuesday on America's first manned space shot since the 2003 Columbia disaster, ending a painful, 2 1/2-year shutdown devoted to making the shuttle less risky and more safety-conscious.
At stake were not only the lives of the astronauts, but also America's pride in its technological prowess, the fate of the U.S. space program and the future of space exploration itself.
"Our long wait may be over. So on behalf of the many millions of people who believe so deeply in what we do, good luck, Godspeed — and have a little fun up there," launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts right before liftoff.
Space program employees and relatives of both the Discovery and Columbia crews watched nervously as the shuttle rose from its pad at 10:39 a.m., climbed into a hazy midsummer sky, pierced two decks of clouds, and headed out over the ocean in the most scrutinized launch in NASA history. Two chase planes and more than 100 cameras documented the ascent from every possible angle to capture any sign of flying debris of the sort that doomed the last flight.
The multitude of images will not be fully analyzed — and NASA will not give a final verdict on whether Discovery is safe to return to Earth — until halfway through the 12-day flight.
The fuel-gauge problem that thwarted a launch attempt two weeks ago did not resurface before liftoff, to NASA's great relief, and the countdown was remarkably smooth. The space agency had been prepared to bend its safety rules to get the shuttle flying.