July 10, 2005

Shuttle in good shape for Wednesday liftoff – NASA

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - After years of
gut-wrenching analysis, dozens of equipment modifications and
repeated delays, NASA's shuttle launch team said on Sunday it
saw no hurdles in its plan to launch shuttle Discovery on the
first mission since the 2003 Columbia accident.

"Discovery is in excellent shape as we prepare for
Wednesday's launch," said NASA test director Jeff Spaulding.

The routine three-day countdown to launch was to begin at 6
p.m. The seven members of the Discovery crew arrived at the
Kennedy Space Center in Florida a day earlier.

"It sure does feel good to be back in the saddle again.
It's been too long," said Discovery's payload manager, Scott
Higginbothan, said at a news briefing on Sunday.

The shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during a
failed landing attempt on Feb. 1, 2003. The accident was blamed
on technical failures -- a piece of foam debris hit Columbia
and damaged its wing during launch -- and poor management
practices. All seven astronauts aboard the orbiter were killed.

The U.S. space agency immediately grounded its three
remaining shuttles and pledged to find the problems, fix the
shuttle and return to flight.

"It's only recently (that) it's all come to fruition,"
said Spaulding. "We can see the light at the end of the


Even the weather appears to be cooperating for an on-time

Forecasters on Sunday predicted a 70 percent chance the
weather will be acceptable for launch on Wednesday. The odds
diminish to 60 percent for launch attempts on Thursday and
Friday, said shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters.

In addition to weather conditions in Florida, NASA will
need clear skies at one of its three U.S. landing sites --
Florida, California and New Mexico -- as well as at a
trans-Atlantic emergency landing site in case a shuttle main
engine problem prevents the ship from reaching orbit.

The weather in Florida also will be a key factor if
Discovery's modified external fuel tank is to pass preflight
ice inspections early on Wednesday. After the tank is filled
with the 535,000 gallons of cryogenic propellants need to get
Discovery in orbit, a special team will head to the launch pad
to scrutinize the tank for ice buildups.

Engineers believe ice particles, which can form on the
outside of the full tank as the shuttle sits on the launch pad,
pose as great a risk as pieces of foam breaking off the tank
during launch and striking the shuttle, as happened during
Columbia's launch.

Ideally, engineers would want relatively low humidity and a
light breeze to help thwart ice formation.

The inspection team will have an extra hour to survey the
shuttle's tank for ice. NASA also toughened its flight rules to
prohibit launch if ice buildups are found in particularly
critical areas.

After the 2003 accident, NASA replaced the foam chunks that
triggered the Columbia disaster with electric heaters and
redesigned how hand-sprayed areas of foam were applied.

Managers then delayed Discovery's launch from May to July
to add an additional heater to thwart ice formations around a
pipe that feeds the supercold liquid oxygen to the shuttle's
main engines.

If inspectors find ice buildups on the tank, the launch
would be called off.

Said Spaulding: "We have mitigation tools to prevent ice
from forming. We don't have anything to remove ice."