May 12, 2006

Space shuttle Discovery takes step toward liftoff

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Nine months after its
troubled last flight, shuttle Discovery was hauled out of its
hangar on Friday and taken to the Kennedy Space Center's
assembly building for final preparations before moving to the
launch pad.

NASA is aiming to launch Discovery in July and end a
three-year, $1.5 billion effort to resume regular shuttle
service to the half-built International Space Station.

Launches were suspended following the fatal 2003 Columbia
accident and again after the troubled July 2005 liftoff of
Discovery on the first shuttle flight since the disaster.

Anchored on top of a large flatbed transporter, Discovery
was backed out of its processing hangar at the Florida space
center. Workers lined the pavement to gawk at the 122-foot
(37-meter) spaceship.

Less than 30 minutes later, Discovery nosed into the
assembly building where, it will be paired with a newly
redesigned fuel tank and two solid booster rockets.

"I'm ecstatic," said vehicle manager Stephanie Stilson.
"This is what the team looks forward to."

Roll-out to the launch pad is targeted for May 19.

Final flight clearance, however, is pending the results of
wind tunnel tests that NASA hopes will prove the revamped fuel
tank is safe to fly. NASA needs to launch Discovery between
July 1 and July 20 or face another postponement until late

The U.S. space agency plans about 16 more shuttle flights
before the ships are retired in 2010.

NASA's primary safety upgrade since the Columbia accident
is intended to prevent the fuel tank's foam insulation from
breaking off during liftoff and striking the orbiter's delicate
heat-resistant tiles and carbon wing panels.

The heat shield is needed to protect the vehicle from
searing temperatures during atmospheric re-entry.

A chunk of foam debris hit Columbia's wing during launch
and punched a hole in its left wing. As the shuttle attempted
to return to Earth 16 days later, superheated gases blasted
into the damaged wing and destroyed the shuttle. Seven
astronauts were killed.

"Hopefully we're on our way to launch," NASA's deputy
director of shuttle processing Rita Willcoxon said.