July 12, 2005

Shuttle launch ‘a go’ after tile repaired

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - NASA will go ahead with
the first space shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia
disaster after fixing damage to a heat-resistant tile on the
shuttle Discovery, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

"The issue has been resolved. Launch is a go," said NASA
spokesman Mike Rein.

The tile was damaged when a window covering fell off
Discovery as the spacecraft sat on the launchpad at Cape
Canaveral in Florida as the clock was counting down to
Wednesday's scheduled launch at 3:51 p.m. (1951 GMT).

The damage caused by falling debris rang alarm bells
because that was precisely the problem that doomed Columbia.

It also came just hours after NASA's administrator, Michael
Griffin, had said all issues except possible bad weather had
been settled and Discovery was ready for launch.

"Everything is at rest today. Yesterday we were working a
couple of ... issues and those were amply put to bed, so we're
in good shape," Griffin said, adding that he hoped "the weather
gods are kind for tomorrow."

"Can there be something that we don't know about that can
bite us? Yeah, this is a tough business, it's a very tough
business but everything that we know about has been covered."

NASA has not flown a shuttle mission since Columbia
disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. Its wing had been
breached on liftoff 16 days earlier by falling foam and
superheated gases rushed into the gap as the shuttle re-entered
Earth's atmosphere. All seven crew died.

Discovery's mission will test improvements made to the
shuttle to reduce falling debris at liftoff and experimental
procedures for repairing damaged heat resistant tiles. The
window covering that fell off would have been removed before

The shuttle, under the command of veteran astronaut Eileen
Collins, will also deliver much-needed supplies and equipment
to the International Space Station. The station's construction
-- a 16-country project -- has been on hold since the remaining
three-shuttle fleet was grounded.


NASA weather forecasters said the outlook for launch was
good, but they increased the risk of thunderstorms.

"For our launch forecast, we did get a little more
pessimistic on this today," weather officer Kathy Winters said
as the countdown clock ticked toward the scheduled liftoff.

"There's a 40 percent chance of weather prohibiting
launch," she told a briefing.

Any thunderstorm must be at least 20 nautical miles from
the shuttle to allow a launch. A network of 112 cameras set up
to monitor Discovery's surface as it soars will need clear
skies to get good images.

The families of the seven astronauts killed in Columbia's
fatal break-up offered their support. "We have had 2 1/2 years
to reflect daily on the loss of our loved ones as the shuttle
Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003," the families
said in a statement.

"... We have every confidence that the sacrifice of our
loved ones and those that preceded them will be realized for
the benefit of mankind. Godspeed Discovery."

If Discovery's launch is delayed, NASA can attempt it twice
more before having to break for a few days to refuel the
craft's onboard power generators.

The current launch window runs from July 13 through July
31. The next one opens Sept. 9.

Griffin said the launch marked a milestone in U.S. efforts
to return to human space flight, but cautioned that space
remained a dangerous realm.

"There is no recovery from mistakes we've made, whether it
goes back to the Apollo fire, the loss of Challenger or the
loss of Columbia," he said.

"Going back even further through 100 years of aviation, the
safety lessons that we who fly have learned are written in
other people's blood. The minute we say we're good enough we
start getting bad again."