First Aggie in Space as Discovery Lifts Off

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After two weather delays and last-minute foam trouble, Discovery and a crew of seven blasted off Tuesday on the first shuttle launch in a year, flying over objections from those within NASA who argued for more fuel-tank repairs.

The majestic shot — NASA's first on Independence Day — was only the second shuttle flight since the Columbia was brought down 3 1/2 years ago by a chunk of insulation foam breaking off the fuel tank.

The foam problem resurfaced during last July's flight of Discovery and again Monday, keeping the space agency debating safety all the way up to the eve of liftoff.

Discovery thundered away from its seaside pad at 1:38 p.m.

Commander Steven Lindsey, an Air Force fighter pilot, was at the controls and aiming for a linkup in two days with the international space station. Earlier, he and his crew waved small American flags on their way to the rocketship.

"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."

Discovery Crew
(Source: The Associated Press)

U.S. Air Force Colonel Steve Lindsey, commander
Age: 45
Hometown: Born in Arcadia, California, but considers Temple City, California, his hometown
Family: Married, three children
He's flown three missions. With a long line of astronauts awaiting their debuts in space, Lindsey says he realizes Discovery's flight to the international space station may be the last of his decade-long career. Lindsey is no stranger to high-profile missions. He piloted the Discovery flight that returned John Glenn to space in 1998. Lindsey came to NASA in 1995 after 13 years in the Air Force. He's an Air Force Academy graduate, holds a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, and flew test flights. He says he believes NASA has made the appropriate improvements to the shuttle's external fuel tank, where the risk of foam insulation snapping off during launch remains. The foam poses the threat of damage to the spacecraft -- the same problem that brought down Columbia. The issue has been openly debated in recent weeks, and some NASA safety experts contend more changes should be made before the next launch. But NASA head Michael Griffin overruled them.

U.S. Navy Commander Mark Kelly, pilot
Age: 42
Hometown: Born in Orange, New Jersey, but considers West Orange, New Jersey, his hometown
Family: Unmarried, two daughters
Unlike some members of the class of 1996, which had about twice the average astronaut class size, Kelly already has a shuttle mission under his belt. He served as the pilot on Endeavour in 2001 during the 12th shuttle flight to the international space station. Kelly holds a master's degree in aeronautical engineering. He'll be Discovery's pilot, too, and will direct mission specialists Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum during their spacewalks. Kelly says he hopes Discovery launches early in the July 1st-19th window so he can return in time for his youngest daughter's ninth birthday, which is July 18.

Mission specialist Michael Fossum
Age: 48
Hometown: Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but grew up in McAllen, Texas
Family: Married, four children
Fossum is about to be the first Aggie in space. The Texas A&M graduate plans to bring to the space station a university flag, which he will bring back for his alma mater. But he may want to hide it from fellow crew mate Stephanie Wilson, who went to graduate school at A&M's archrival, the University of Texas. Fossum has master's degrees in systems engineering and space science. He not only will be flying for the first time in space, but he'll be making his first spacewalk. The rookie will make at least two excursions outside the space station with Sellers to test inspection and repair techniques on the shuttle. A third spacewalk is possible. Fossum has been an astronaut for eight years, but his service with NASA stretches back to the early 1980s. That's when he went to work at Johnson Space Center after completing graduate work at the Air Force Institute of Technology. It took him several tries to join the astronaut corps. As a child, he cherished a book on the Apollo program and wrote in it, "I, too, am going to the stars." He rediscovered the book a few years ago in a box of childhood items and thought, "My goodness. Look what you wrote!"

U.S. Navy Commander Lisa Nowak, mission specialist
Age: 43
Hometown: Washington
Family: Married, three children
Nowak's son was in preschool when she joined the astronaut corps in 1996. The 14-year-old boy is now about to start high school --and his mother has yet to fly in space. But that likely will change shortly. Nowak also has four-year-old twin girls. She served as a communicator with shuttle crews at Mission Control. She's been to Canada for robotics arm training for the space station. She's traveled to Japan to work with its space agency's robotics operations during the early years of the space station. The U.S. Naval Academy master's degree holder in aeronautical engineering will apply her skills by using a robotic arm to inspect Discovery for any post-launch damage. Other astronauts have advised the first-time space-flyer to take time to enjoy the view.

Mission specialist Stephanie Wilson
Age: 39
Hometown: Boston
Family: Unmarried
Wilson may be a Harvard graduate, but she got her master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, the home of the Longhorns and sworn enemies of Fossum's Aggies. "I'm trying to figure out how I can collect all of the Aggie items so they don't appear" in photos,” she said. Wilson will be the second black American woman in space. With Nowak, she'll operate the shuttle's 50-foot robotic arm, attached to a 50-foot boom, during inspections for any damage to Discovery.

Mission specialist Piers Sellers
Age: 51
Hometown: Crowborough, Sussex, United Kingdom
Family: Married, two children Sellers already is scheduled to lead two spacewalks during Discovery's mission to the space station. But he's hoping Fossum and he can squeeze in an additional one to test out a new material for repairing cracked thermal tiles on the shuttle. Sellers performed three spacewalks for construction tasks during his only other trip to the space station aboard space shuttle Atlantis in October 2002. He holds a doctorate in biometeorology and did computer modeling of the climate system before becoming a U.S. citizen and joining NASA in 1996.

European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter
Age: 48
Hometown: Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Family: Married, two sons
Reiter's wife and two sons, ages 14 and 8, have packed him a surprise package, which he isn't supposed to open until he begins his six-month stay on the international space station. Reiter is no stranger to long stays in space since he spent six months in the mid-1990s on Russia's Mir Space Station, where he also performed two spacewalks. The former test pilot has a masters degree in aerospace technology and joined the European Space Agency's astronaut corps in 1992. He'll return the international space station to a three-man crew for the first time since the Columbia accident. He will become the first European to have an extended stay on the orbiting space lab.