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Can an entire country heave a single, collective sigh of relief? If so, then that's what the United States did yesterday morning when the space shuttle Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:39 a.m. and soared skyward, 2½ years after an explosion destroyed its sister ship Columbia as it was returning to Earth, killing its entire crew and bringing the U.S. shuttle program to a screeching halt.

As Discovery's massive engines fired yesterday, the ground rumbled and shuddered as far as six kilometres from the launch pad, setting off car alarms throughout the space centre's parking lot. Within seconds, the shuttle was just a glowing ember at the end of a giant column of smoke, and less than 10 minutes later it was coasting through space -- at almost 30,000 kilometres an hour -- on its way toward a hookup with the International Space Station.

Although it appeared to be a relatively flawless launch, there was some initial concern about a couple of small pieces of debris seen on videos of the liftoff, and NASA's senior engineers admitted the agency won't really have closed the door on the 2003 disaster until the Discovery crew lands safely on Aug. 7.

"I ask you all to take note of what you saw here today -- the power and the majesty of launch, of course, but also . . . the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team, who pulled this program out of the depths of despair 2½ years ago and made it fly," NASA administrator Michael Griffin told reporters after the launch. The mood in the launch control room "was giddy," said NASA flight director Mike Leinbach. "People were slapping each other on the back." The only thing better than a successful launch, he said, "will be landing in 12 days." Only then, he said, can NASA "say that we've come full circle" from the Columbia disaster.

Canadian Space Agency director Marc Garneau, who has been in space three times, said he also wants to wait until the mission is over before describing it as a success. "I want to see how things go in the next few days," he said in an interview. "They've got to inspect all those tiles, analyze all those camera videos that were used at liftoff to see that nothing damaged the tiles, and so I'll reserve judgment on that."

Mr. Garneau is also keen to see how the orbiter boom sensor system works, as well as the sensor or laser camera that scans the tiles. Both pieces were built by Canadian companies.

NASA has spent the past two years investigating the cause of the Columbia explosion -- which turned out to be a piece of foam that came off the external fuel tank and damaged the shuttle's wing -- and then redesigning both the spacecraft itself and the culture at the space agency.

More than 100 still and video cameras were trained on the Discovery yesterday. Although two cameras showed two small pieces of debris -- one that missed the shuttle, and another that appeared to be about 3.8 centimetres wide -- NASA said it would need to study the footage before it could say whether they were important. "We're seeing areas of the shuttle . . . that we've never seen before," said NASA flight operations manager John Shannon.

"The launch was fantastic. We had perfect weather and a flawless launch," said Canadian astronaut Dave Williams, who went into space in 1998 and is expected to fly again next year.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who has been in space twice, said that he felt "relieved and very happy and proud" after the launch. "It's been a long time getting to this point. . . . We are back in the shuttle business."

Mr. Hadfield also noted, however, that the mission "is by no means over." Discovery was originally supposed to lift off in May, but problems with ice on a fuel line and a faulty sensor in the external tank caused NASA to reschedule the mission for July 13. That launch was scrubbed a little more than two hours before liftoff, after a prelaunch test revealed another faulty fuel sensor in the shuttle's external tank.

Today, Discovery's crew will use the Canadarm and the Canadian-made inspection boom with its 3D laser camera to examine the surface of the shuttle. Although cameras spotted the piece of foam that broke off the Columbia, NASA didn't have a way to detect how much damage it had done.

"This is a big day for Canada, and a big day for NASA," Mr. Williams said. "Getting back to space is tremendously important." He and other Canadian astronauts say a return to space is also a way of paying tribute to the crew of the Columbia"They would want us to continue," Mr. Williams said.