Shuttle's Independence Day lift-off

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"We've laid out the data and we've looked at it calmly, and we're ready to go fly" Bill Gerstenmaier - NASA's associate administrator of spaceflight

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THE space shuttle Discovery finally blasted off last night after several days of delays, to lend a spectacular fiery flourish to Independence Day celebrations in the United States.

NASA called it "a gift to the nation".

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The agency's first 4 July launch in 45 years of manned spaceflight provided a welcome distraction from the ongoing controversy over the safety of the foam insulation on the shuttle's fuel tank and the frustration of two consecutive aborted lift-offs due to poor weather at the Kennedy Space Centre.

"For the first time in our country's history, we hope to be waving the US flag in orbit and leading the day's celebrations," a NASA spokesman said.

Discovery and its crew of seven, including Edinburgh University graduate Piers Sellers, 51, enjoyed an apparently flawless ascent into orbit after an on-time launch at 2:37pm (7:37pm BST). Thunderstorms that had threatened to cause a third postponement remained out to sea.

Managers at NASA immediately began a painstaking study of images from 107 cameras on the ground and aboard the spacecraft to check for any damage sustained during the first minutes of its 13-day, five-million-mile mission to the International Space Station.

It was a briefcase-sized slab of foam peeling from the external fuel tank at lift-off that put a hole in the wing of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, leading to the deaths of seven astronauts as deadly hot gases seeped into the spacecraft and blew it apart on re-entry.

Despite a redesign of the fuel tank, the problem struck again during last year's first return-to-flight mission, when a 1lb chunk of foam narrowly missed Discovery. And last night's blast-off was placed in doubt when launch-pad technicians found a five-inch crack and a three-inch piece of foam missing near a fuel-line bracket after the tank was drained following Sunday's aborted launch.

Engineers spent all of Monday assessing the damage before concluding it was not bad enough to provide a constraint to flight. But Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator of spaceflight, found himself refuting suggestions that the agency had rushed its decision to press ahead with the launch.

"We've laid out the data and we've looked at it calmly, and we're ready to go fly," he said.

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Dr Sellers, who was born in Crowborough, Sussex, but became an American citizen to join the astronaut corps in 1996, boarded the "astrobus" to the launch pad waving a Stars and Stripes flag.

Walking beside him was Thomas Reiter, 47, the only non-American among the crew, who carried a flag of his native Germany - he was hoping for an update from mission control in Houston about the result of last night's World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy.

Discovery will return to Earth on 17 July, but Reiter will remain aboard the space station, increasing its complement to three astronauts for the first time since May 2003.

Dr Sellers, the third Briton in space after Helen Sharman and Michael Foale, is on his second shuttle trip after a 12-day adventure aboard Atlantis in 2002.