June 30, 2005

NASA sets July 13 launch date for space shuttle

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - NASA announced on Thursdayit planned to launch on July 13 its first space shuttle missionsince the 2003 Columbia disaster, saying the agency had doneeverything it could to fix the problems that led to theaccident.

"We believe this is the cleanest flight we have ever done,"NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters after atwo-day flight review, while acknowledging that all spaceflight carries risks.

"It's risky; we've done what we can do to minimize that."

The U.S. space agency, which has labored for more than twoyears to correct the flaws that led to the Columbia accident,had previously hoped to launch the shuttle Discovery in May,but halted that plan in April and said more work was needed ona redesigned fuel tank.

Since then, Discovery has been rolled back out onto thelaunch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, awaitingthe go-ahead for launch during a period between July 13 andJuly 31.

"Based on a very thorough and very successful flightreadiness review we're currently 'go for launch' of Discoveryon July 13," Griffin said.

"The crew is go for launch. They want us to be go forlaunch. They don't want to rush to flight but they are ready toreturn to flight," he said, adding he had met with missioncommander Eileen Collins earlier in the day.

The shuttle Columbia, which suffered damage to a wing fromfalling debris as it launched, broke up as it reentered theEarth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven crew.

Griffin said NASA's effort over the last two and a halfyears was not just to eliminate the possibility of debrisdamaging the shuttle, but rather a wider review of the entirespacecraft.

"We went literally from stem to stern of the vehicle ... tomake sure that we did come back smarter and stronger and saferas a result."

The space agency chief has acknowledged a safety panel'sfindings this week that NASA had not yet fully complied withsafety recommendations after the Columbia disaster.

He said on Thursday that the panel had praised NASA'spreparations for return to flight, but had looked veryliterally at some recommendations, including some that couldnot yet be implemented.

"We are being as smart about this as we know how to be butwe are up against the limits of our human knowledge," he said,adding that NASA did not yet know how to fix large or evensmall holes in space.

NASA officials acknowledged that traditionally stormyweather in July in Florida could hamper an on-time launch.

But they noted that the shuttle Atlantis was in "greatshape" and ready for roll-out on July 20 to support Discovery'smission.

If Discovery is damaged and cannot return to Earth, NASA'splan is to harbor the astronauts at the International SpaceStation until Atlantis can be launched on a rescue mission.

On its mission, Discovery will test safety upgrades madeafter the Columbia disaster and deliver badly needed suppliesto the space station.

Griffin, asked when NASA will be celebrating, said notuntil Discovery is safely home after its 13-day mission.

"I personally don't think we're going to be doing anycelebrating until we have wheels stopped on the landing.There's an old thing among pilots, the flight's not over untilthe engine's off and the airplane's tied down." (Additionalreporting by Jim Loney in Miami)