CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -Now safely in space, the crew of shuttle Discovery will inspect the venerable but renovated spaceship Wednesday for answers to two momentous questions: How well did it tolerate blastoff and can it carry them home?

Discovery thundered from Launch Pad 39B at 2:38 p.m. Eastern time, right on schedule, slicing like lightning through summer heat, riding atop a white tower of smoke and vapor, creating quite the Fourth of July spectacle of sound and light.

Initial assessments suggested a relatively clean launch, though five scraps of insulation flew off the perpetually troublesome external fuel tank – and one may have struck the orbiter’s belly, apparently without damaging it.

Wayne Hale, NASA’s shuttle program manager, said most of the pieces were very small, all peeled away at a point in the launch “after the time we are concerned about” and none posed any risk.

“We saw nothing that gives us any kind of concern about the health of the crew and vehicle,” Hale said Tuesday night after engineers completed a preliminary evaluation of data and video.

Engineers had predicted that small or otherwise harmless foam particles would continue to peel away during every launch.

“At the end of the day, I’m very pleased,” Hale said.

Astronauts also reported seeing what they thought was a piece of cloth falling from the shuttle – arousing fears that the craft lost a crucial thermal blanket – but Hale said that debris was “clearly” common and innocuous ice.

It was only the second liftoff of a U.S. human space mission since Columbia disintegrated in flight in 2003. And it was the first July 4th shuttle launch since the program began in 1981.

As the crew left its quarters at the Kennedy Space Center, six of the seven astronauts waved American flags; Thomas Reiter, a native of Germany, waved his nation’s flag.

Now, engineers on Earth and astronauts more than 100 miles above it must conclusively determine if the shuttle absorbed any damage from launch debris, a persistent problem that caused the loss of Columbia and its seven crew members, blemished last year’s first post-Columbia flight and nearly delayed Tuesday’s liftoff.

On Wednesday, the astronauts are scheduled to spend nearly seven hours using a remote-control camera – mounted at the tip of a 100-foot robot arm – to inspect Discovery’s leading wing edges and nose cone.

Later during the 12- or 13-day mission, two spacewalking astronauts will perform a high-altitude, gloves-on inspection of their spaceship.

Meanwhile, NASA engineers will study video from more than 100 cameras posted around the launch site. A full appraisal of Discovery’s condition could take six days or more.

In a worst-case situation, a crew that found itself marooned on a damaged shuttle could seek refuge on the International Space Station for at least a few weeks until shuttle Atlantis could bring them home.

But NASA, which has spent more than $1.3 billion to enhance safety aboard the shuttles, believes that will never be necessary.

Aboard Discovery were commander Steve Lindsey, 45; pilot Mark Kelly, 42; and mission specialists Mike Fossum, 48; Lisa Nowak, 43; Reiter, 48; Piers Sellers, 51; and Stephanie Wilson, 39.

“It’s a risky business,” Nowak said before the launch, “but all of us believe it’s worth it.”

In February 2003, a 1.67-pound chunk of foam fell off the external tank attached to Columbia, punching a hole in that shuttle’s left wing.

During re-entry, superheated atmospheric gases penetrated the spaceship through that undetected hole, destroying the craft 40 miles over Texas and killing the crew.

Despite assurances that the problem had been solved, smaller pieces of foam – including one that weighed 1 pound – struck Discovery last July during the first post-Columbia launch.

That crew was able to return safely to Earth, but engineers spent another year working again on the issue.

Even so, the agency’s chief engineer and chief of safety voted “no-go” last month during a preflight meeting because of lingering concerns over the readiness of the external tank.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin authorized the mission anyway.

Then, the problem reappeared Sunday night as technicians discovered a 5-inch crack in the insulation and a scrap of foam that had fallen away. NASA engineers concluded that the flaws were of little consequence.

And so, that most familiar of U.S. space traditions – the final countdown – echoed through a steamy afternoon at Cape Canaveral.

Launch commentator Bruce Buckingham, sitting at a console in Firing Room 4: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, main engine start, two, one, booster ignition and … liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery.”

During the flight, the crew will deliver Reiter to the space station, where he will join two astronauts already there.

In addition, the shuttle’s crew members will transfer supplies and equipment to the station, and they will test techniques to inspect and repair the shuttle.

If all remains on schedule, Discovery and its crew will land at the space center around 8:50 a.m. July 16 or July 17, depending on the flight’s duration.

Tens of thousands of spectators celebrated the holiday by gathering around the space center, among them Janet Carey of St. Augustine, who was wearing red, white and blue.

“To wait until the Fourth of July to launch it,” she said, “we needed that so badly in America now.”

As the shuttle declared its independence from Earth, Chuck Morley, 68, watched through binoculars from a few miles away, and he softly sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” – in its entirety.

“It just seemed appropriate,” said Morley, who lives in nearby Palm Bay.

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