July 28, 2005

Shuttle, space station link amid NASA woes

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Shuttle Discovery docked smoothly with
the International Space Station high above the earth on
Thursday, carrying on after NASA grounded its other shuttles
for fear of another Columbia-like disaster.

The two space behemoths, each weighing more than 100 tons,
linked up with barely a bump as commander Eileen Collins slowly
guided the shuttle in.

"This was so much easier than the sims," she radioed to
Mission Control, referring to preflight docking simulations.

This flight was supposed to have been a triumphant return
of the shuttle to the space station for the first time since
November 2002, but NASA's surprise decision that it still is
not safe to fly the aging orbiters took the glow off.

The U.S. space agency said flying debris captured on video
at Discovery's launch on Tuesday was too similar to what
brought down shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003 and showed that
the debris problem was not fixed after 2 1/2 years of work and
more than $1 billion in safety expenditures.

NASA officials believe Discovery is unharmed and will have
no trouble coming home on Aug. 7, but they do not know when
shuttles will fly again. A flight by Atlantis was scheduled in

Images showed chunks of foam missing from at least three
places on Discovery's external fuel tank, including one almost
as big as the piece that struck Columbia. There are also nicks
in the protective tiles on Discovery's belly.

A 1.67-pound piece of insulating foam from Columbia's
external fuel tank broke loose at launch on Jan. 16, 2003, and
struck the left wing, causing a hole in the heat shield that
doomed the shuttle during re-entry 16 days later.

As Columbia glided toward Florida, superheated gases from
the earth's atmosphere entered the breach and caused the
orbiter to disintegrate over Texas, killing its seven

The stray foam on Tuesday's launch, the first since the
three-shuttle fleet was grounded after Columbia, meant it was
back to the drawing boards, shuttle program manager Bill
Parsons said in a Wednesday briefing.

"Until we're ready, we won't fly again," he said. "I don't
know when that might be."

NASA administrator Michael Griffin told CNN the shuttle
program would continue until its scheduled end in 2010.

"Right now, we are planning on flying the shuttle until
2010 and using it to assemble the international space station.
And then moving on with a return of U.S. astronauts to the
moon," he said. The shuttle transports the modules used to
piece together the still-unfinished $95 billion space station.

In space, the seven astronauts on Discovery, which flew its
first mission in 1984, went about their business with nary a
word about problems on Earth.

In a maneuver planned before launch, shuttle commander
Eileen Collins steered Discovery into a slow back flip 600 feet
below the space station while station crewmembers Sergei
Krikalev and John Phillips snapped pictures of Discovery's
damaged tiles.

The photos will be used to determine if NASA is correct in
thinking the shuttle is OK to return home. More inspections
were scheduled for Friday.

Discovery is scheduled to stay a week with the station,
during which time it will hand over 15 tons of supplies ranging
from food to light bulbs to new laptop computers and pick up 13
tons of junk to carry back to earth.

Shuttle astronauts Steve Robinson and Japan's Soichi
Noguchi will perform three spacewalks, during which they will
replace and repair balky gyroscopes that keep the space station
stable and attach an external platform to be used for storage.

They will also test still-experimental techniques to repair
damage to the shuttle exterior.