July 12, 2005

Shuttle launch ‘a go’ after tiles repaired

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

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

The two tiles were damaged when a plastic window cover
weighing less than 2 pounds (1 kilogram) fell off Discovery as
the spacecraft sat on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in
Florida, during the countdown 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.

In that case, Columbia's left wing was damaged by a chunk
of foam insulation that weighed 1.67 pounds (0.76 kilogram).
The damage opened a hole in Columbia's skin that let in
superheated gas during re-entry, tearing the ship apart and
killing all seven astronauts.

"This is a minor repair for us," Stephanie Stilson,
Discovery's manager, told reporters after a panel that
contained the two damaged tiles was replaced. "They have given
us a go for launch."

The shuttle's window covers are removed before launch.

The damage repair 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.


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 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.