Stennis Workers Saddened But Hopeful For Future

This was the scene Tuesday at Stennis Space Center, of a crowd cheering and shedding tears of joy over what appeared to be a successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.

On Thursday, a cloud hangs over the Hancock County facility, and not just outside.

"I would be lying to you if I told you that we weren't disappointed. And I know I personally had a knot in my stomach yesterday when I observed the photographic evidence of some foam falling off the tank," said Stennis deputy director David Throckmorton.

NASA officials say a chunk of insulating foam flew off the shuttle's fuel tank during liftoff, as it did during the doomed Columbia mission two and a half years ago.

"We thought in the redesign of the external tank over the last two years that we had taken care of all those items. Unfortunately, you know the experience of this launch says that we haven't quite finished that job."

Throckmorton says the increased photography at the launch is one of the new procedures that is continuously helping the space organization see its problems quickly to immediately begin corrections.

Fortunately, one thing officials did not view as a problem - the shuttle's main engines, which are built at Stennis.

"The modifications that were done to provide film footage during launch was specifically to look at the shedding of pieces and parts of the external tank, the foam. So it was not concentrated on looking at the engine.We normally get a pretty good view of the engines as it is leaving the launch pad as it's progressing upwards, but that's not what we're concentrating on this mission," said propulsion test director Miguel Rodriguez.

But Rodriguez says they are always testing and making improvements to the engines, and will continue doing their part to make sure space exploration can continue.

"We're gonna fly again," said Throckmorton.

After the shuttle fleet retires in 2010, the crew exploration vehicle or CEV, which is intended to succeed the space shuttle system, will be the next vehicle into space.