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Discovery's heat shield looks good: NASA

The heat shield on the space shuttle Discovery looks to be in good shape, according to initial reports from NASA on Sunday.

The heat shield on the space shuttle Discoverylooks to be in good shape, according to initial reports from NASA on Sunday.

Discovery launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., into the night sky Saturday on a mission to the International Space Station, inwhat was thefirst night liftoff in four years.

"So far so good," said lead flight director Tony Ceccacci as the astronauts on Discovery finishedan inspection of the shuttle on Sunday, looking for any possible damage from liftoff.

As expected, small pieces of foam and ice fell from the shuttle during the launch, but it was nothing to be concerned about as they didn't strike the craft itself, say officials. It will, however, be at least two days before engineers can rule out any damage, says NASA.

"The team sees nothing of concern at this time," said deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.

The shuttle is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station Monday afternoon, more than 348 kilometres above the Earth.

During the 12-day mission, Discovery's astronauts will rewire the space station, bring up a new two-ton addition to the space lab and rotate out one of the station's three crew.

Wait and see

Earlier in the day Saturday,NASA saidthere was only a 30 per cent chance weather would co-operate for the 8:47 p.m. ET launch, but the forecast improved as the clock ticked down.

"Forty-eight hours makes a tremendous difference," launch director Mike Leinbach told the Discovery crew.

Commander Mark Polansky responded, "We look forward to lighting up the night sky."

After the shuttle reached its orbit, Mission Control told Discovery's crew that there were no initial reports of any serious problems and that the shuttle was "in great shape."

NASA had required daylight launches for the three flights after the 2003 Columbia accident to make sure the agency could get good daytime photos of the external fuel tank in case debris fell from it.

Foam breaking off the tank and striking Columbia's wing at liftoff led to the disaster that killed seven astronauts upon the shuttle's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

But NASA officials said they were comfortable with the acceptable levels of foam loss during the last two liftoffs and believe radar would spot pieces falling from Discovery's tank.

Fuel tank hurdles cleared

Up to the countdown,officialsstill hadconcerns about crosswinds at an emergency landing site and isolated showers. Low clouds block views of the space shuttle during launch and make an emergency landing more difficult.

Thelaunch wasNASA's second attempt to launch Discovery after bad weather forced a scrub Thursday. That countdown marched to the wire, with a worse than 50-50 chance all along the weather would co-operate. NASA aborted it in the last few minutes because of low clouds.

Each launch scrub costs the space agency $500,000.

Managers decided not to try again Friday because the forecast looked even worse.

NASA wants Discovery back from its mission by New Year's Eve because shuttle computers are not designed to make the change from the 365th day of the old year to the first day of the new year while in flight. The agency has developed a fix, but would prefer not to try it.

With files from the Associated Press