August 5, 2005

Discovery crew readies for space station departure

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Discovery astronauts started packing up
on Friday for their departure from the International Space
Station after NASA finally said the shuttle was safe enough to
come home from the first flight since the 2003 Columbia

The crew finished loading an Italian-built cargo unit with
more than three tonnes of trash and unneeded equipment from the
station for the return to Earth and stowed gear that included
space suits used on three spacewalks by astronauts Steve
Robinson and Soichi Noguchi.

Late on Friday, the Discovery crew was to say goodbye to
station crewmembers Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips, close
the hatch and get ready to undock early on Saturday.

The shuttle was scheduled to land in Florida on Monday.

Because of safety measures put in place after Columbia fell
from the sky over Texas, Discovery has been videotaped,
photographed, laser-inspected and, in a shuttle program first,
repaired by the spacewalking Robinson.

NASA gave serious thought to sending him and Noguchi out
again to fix a small tear in an insulating cloth protecting the
surface of Discovery near the commander's window, but decided
on Thursday enough was enough.

The space agency had feared that a cloth piece weighing
less than an ounce (28 grams) could come off during descent
into the atmosphere and cause dangerous damage to the

But, said deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, "We've
assessed this risk to the very best of our engineering
knowledge and we believe the vehicle is safe to fly and for

The decision that Discovery was safe came after it already
had been in space 10 days.

Discovery was the first shuttle to visit the space station
since Endeavour made the trip in November 2002 and may be the
last for some time after NASA last week suspended further

Videos of Discovery's July 26 launch showed loose
insulation foam breaking from the external fuel tank, which was
the same problem that caused Columbia's demise when it
re-entered Earth's atmosphere.

NASA, which spent 2 1/2 years and $1 billion on safety
upgrades after Columbia, said its fleet of three shuttles will
not fly again until the foam problem is fixed.

A 1.67-pound (0.76-kg) piece of tank foam struck Columbia
at launch and punched a hole in its wing heat shield.

Sixteen days later, as Columbia glided toward landing,
superheated gases generated by re-entry penetrated the wing and
caused the shuttle to fall apart. The seven astronauts on board

Discovery suffered minor damage as it rose from Florida, --
some of believed to be from foam impacts -- but nothing bad
enough to put the shuttle in danger, Hale said.