December 31, 2010

Final Discovery Mission Suffers Yet Another Setback

NASA officials ordered additional repairs to Space Shuttle Discovery on Friday--a move which could further delay the vehicle's final mission, according to various news outlets.

According to the U.S. space agency's website, X-rays taken as part of an ongoing probe into cracks in Discovery's external fuel tank revealed "four additional small cracks on three stringers on the opposite side of the tank from Discovery, and managers elected to repair those cracks in a similar fashion to repairs made on cracks discovered after the Nov. 5 launch attempt."

The work, according to NASA officials, is expected to take two to three days, and "any further work will be evaluated thoroughly early next week after additional data is reviewed." A decision as to whether or not any additional repairs are required could come by Monday, and the next possible launch date for the venerable space shuttle is currently Thursday, February 3.

This is the latest setback for STS-133, which was initially scheduled to begin with a November 1 launch before cracks in the foam surrounding the fuel take forced repeated delays. As part of the mission, Discovery will be delivering a storage module, spare parts, and scientific equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).

According to CNN.com, "The delay means the final launch of Endeavour, which is also scheduled to be the last launch of the space shuttle program, is likely to be delayed until April 1, said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations."

"The shuttle fuel tanks have been a top safety issue for NASA since the 2003 Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts," Irene Klotz of Reuters reported on Friday. "A piece of foam insulation broke off Columbia's tank during launch and smashed into the ship's wing. The damage caused the shuttle to break apart as it flew through the atmosphere for landing 16 days later. NASA redesigned the tanks after the accident and developed new in-flight inspection procedures."

The space shuttle program is scheduled to end next year, with just two or three additional missions to the ISS scheduled in 2011, said Klotz. Afterwards, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) will temporarily take over the job of transporting astronauts to and from the orbital facility, with NASA hoping that the US commercial spaceflight industry will be able to assume those duties by 2015.


Image Caption: Space shuttle Discovery shares the stage with the moon following a total lunar eclipse as the spacecraft waits to roll back from Launch Pad 39A to the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett


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