August 7, 2005

Discovery crew says confident of safe return

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Discovery astronauts gave their
spacecraft a final inspection on Sunday and said they were
confident of a safe return to Earth on the first shuttle flight
since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

They checked out flight control systems and used a laptop
computer to practice landings before Monday's touchdown in

"Discovery is in absolutely great shape," shuttle commander
Eileen Collins said in a media interview from space. "I'm
pretty confident about the entry (into the atmosphere) and I'm
thinking about the landing."

"I have had a lot of thoughts about Columbia and I will
have thoughts after the landing, but we're all going to be very
focused tomorrow on the job at hand," she said.

After 13 days in orbit, Discovery was scheduled to land at
Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east coast at 4:47 a.m. (0847
GMT) on Monday.

Weather forecasts indicated favorable conditions for
landing, NASA flight commentator James Hartsfield said. If
problems arose, Discovery could be waved off to an alternate
landing site in California or New Mexico on Tuesday.

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 subsequent investigation criticized the agency for
becoming too lax 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

"I guess you almost have to thank the Columbia crew. The
sacrifice they made allowed us to get a lot smarter about it,"
said Discovery pilot Jim Kelly.

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.