August 6, 2005

Shuttle departs station, risky return awaits

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Discovery departed from the
International Space Station on Saturday and glided off on its
own in the first step toward the shuttle's risky return to

With pilot Jim Kelly at the controls, the spacecraft
unlatched from the docking port, then eased away from the
station that it joined in space on July 28.

Kelly looped Discovery once around the station while his
crew mates snapped photographs of the station's exterior for
inspection later by NASA engineers.

Then he fired the shuttle jets to send Discovery on its
way. It was separating from the station at 9 miles per orbit,
or about every 90 minutes.

Discovery is making the first shuttle flight since Columbia
broke apart while returning to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003. It is
scheduled to land in Florida on Monday.

Officials at the U.S. space agency were to meet on Saturday
to look at weather forecasts. If conditions are not optimal,
Discovery's return could be delayed.

Night-shift workers at Johnson Space Center in Houston went
outside to watch the shuttle and space station, still only
about 10 miles apart, sail overhead early Saturday.

They looked like two stars, the larger space station
brighter than the shuttle, cruising in tandem at 17,500 miles
per hour (28,000 kph) 220 miles above the Earth.

Later on Saturday, the Discovery crew was to check out the
shuttle's steering rockets and start stowing gear in
preparation for their return.

While at the station, Discovery astronauts Soichi Noguchi
and Steve Robinson conducted three spacewalks, which were
mostly devoted to maintenance work on the station and
installing a storage platform on its exterior.

The third walk included an unprecedented repair by Robinson
on the shuttle's belly as he plucked out two cloth strips
protruding from the heat shield.

Discovery transferred tonnes of cargo to and from the space
station, stocking it with food, water and other supplies and
carting off trash and unneeded equipment that had piled up
since the last shuttle visit in 2002.

Shuttles are supposed to be primary suppliers for the
station, but Russian spacecraft have ferried in goods since the
Columbia disaster.

Space station astronauts Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips
warmly thanked the Discovery crew on Friday for their visit and
sent them off with handshakes and hugs.

"We want to say thank you, all of you," Krikalev said. "We
are waiting for this flight for very long years, more than two
years already."

Columbia fell apart because a 1.67-pound (0.76-kg) piece of
insulating foam from the external fuel tank struck the shuttle
at launch and punched a hole in its wing heat shield.

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

Videos at Discovery's launch showed tank foam breaking
loose from its fuel tank, which dismayed NASA after it spent 2
1/2 years and $1 billion on safety upgrades to the shuttle

Discovery has a few nicks, but NASA officials consider the
shuttle safe to return home.

The agency said it would not fly a shuttle again until the
foam problem is fixed. NASA officials said on Friday they hoped
they could launch again as early as Sept. 22.