August 7, 2005

Discovery crew checks shuttle before landing

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Discovery astronauts tested shuttle
flight systems and used a laptop computer to practice landing
Sunday as they prepared to return to Earth in the first shuttle
flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

They fired steering jets, checked out flight controls and
remotely jiggled the spacecraft's rudder in an inspection
before a planned landing Monday in Florida that will have NASA
holding its breath.

Discovery passed Sunday's tests with flying colors.

"The crew has completed checks of flight controls and
steering jets done as pre-landing checks -- all of that going
very well, very smoothly, all on track for landing," NASA
flight commentator James Hartsfield said.

Shuttle commander Eileen Collins, pilot Jim Kelly and
flight engineer Steve Robinson hooked a laptop to Discovery's
control sticks and practiced landing with a flight simulator

After 13 days in orbit, Discovery is due back at the
Kennedy Space Center at 4:46 a.m. (0846 GMT) on Monday.

The U.S. space agency has pronounced the spacecraft fit to
withstand the fiery descent into the Earth's atmosphere that
brought the demise of Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003.

But NASA officials admit the first return home since that
tragedy, which killed the seven astronauts on board, will be a
nail-biter until the shuttle safely lands.

"We are going to be pretty darn happy to get to wheels-stop
and see this good crew step off," said lead flight director
Paul Hill.

Columbia was a few minutes from landing in Florida when it
broke apart over Texas as superheated gases generated by
re-entry penetrated its structure through a hole in the wing
heat shield.

The wing had been struck by a briefcase-size piece of
insulating foam that broke loose from its external fuel tank at
launch 16 days before.


A post-Columbia investigation criticized the agency for
becoming too lax about risk and resulted in stiff safety
standards for future shuttle flights.

NASA spent 2 1/2 years and $1 billion making safety
upgrades so the stakes are high for Monday's landing to prove
it can still conduct reliable spaceflights.

"It'll be a huge sense of accomplishment having gotten
through the last two years and demonstrated that we still know
how to do this very difficult and dangerous business," Hill

Discovery's flight began badly when loose tank foam like
that which doomed Columbia was seen at the July 26 launch. NASA
quickly suspended additional shuttle flights until the foam
problem is solved.

Then, photographic and laser inspections of the shuttle in
space, conducted for the first time as part of the new safety
regime, showed minor nicks to Discovery's heat shield, two
protruding cloth strips from its belly and a rip in an
insulating cloth near the commander's window.

Only the protruding strips were deemed sufficiently
hazardous for a fix so Robinson went on an unprecedented
spacewalk to remove them. He easily pulled them out with his
gloved hand.

The damage issues overshadowed Discovery's accomplishments,
which included a resupply of the International Space Station
and a fix of broken gyroscopes that keep the station positioned
properly. The shuttle left the station on Saturday.

Should weather or technical problems prevent Discovery from
landing on Monday, alternate landing sites in California and
New Mexico will be ready for a Tuesday return, NASA officials