for National Geographic News
As the space shuttle Discovery rocketed away from Earth this July 4, errant pieces of foam weren't the only hazards worrying NASA scientists and astronauts.
A stray vulture could also have doomed the spacecraft.
During a launch last year, Discovery's external fuel tank struck one of the birds a few seconds after takeoff.
"There happened to be a group of three vultures flying over the vehicle, and we hit one of them," said Steve Payne, NASA's ground-based shuttle test director.
Luckily, he said, "We weren't going very fast." The shuttle was still building up speed as it lifted off the launch pad, so the impact wasn't too intense.
Also, the collision occurred on the side of the fuel tank opposite the shuttle, or orbiter, so the hapless bird fell away without striking the orbiter's fragile underbelly.
"It could conceivably have done damage if it had come over the top side and hit the orbiter," Payne said.
In 2003 a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle Columbia fell and fatally damaged the craft (read "U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia, Crew Lost").
The vulture collision wasn't the first time that mission control had dealt with pesky birds.
Before a previous mission, Payne said, "woodpeckers started pecking at our external tank and made a couple of hundred holes."
Perhaps that's no surprise. The John F. Kennedy Space Center, where shuttle operations are based, sits on the 140,000-acre (56,656-hectare) Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
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