February 17, 2006

Next Space Shuttle Crew Confident of Foam Fix

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The crew chosen to fly the space shuttle on NASA's second mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster said on Friday they are confident that changes to the fuel tank will result in a safe, but not debris-free, liftoff.

The modifications were ordered after shuttle Discovery's fuel tank shed large pieces of its insulating foam during launch in July 2005 on the first mission since the accident, which also was caused by falling foam debris.

"The (shuttle) program has never advertised that we would never lose any foam," said astronaut Steven Lindsey, the commander of the next crew, which also will fly on shuttle Discovery.

"We will lose foam on this flight, just like every other. The key is that the foam we do lose is small enough size that it can't hurt us if it hits the vehicle," he said.

Managers hope to launch Discovery in May but several hurdles must be cleared in the next few weeks to prevent a postponement until the next launch opportunity in July.

The redesigned fuel tank still must pass wind-tunnel tests and other engineering assessments. Workers at the Kennedy Space Center must complete inspection and replacement of cloth fillers tucked between the ceramic heat-shielding tiles on Discovery's belly.

During Discovery's last mission, astronauts made an unscheduled spacewalk to remove two protruding cloth strips that engineers feared could cause the heat shield to fail.

As in the previous shuttle mission, Lindsey and his crew will spend at least a full day inspecting the shuttle's heat shield in orbit, using a new 50-foot (15-meter) sensor-laden boom attached to the ship's cargo bay crane.

The inspections are among the safety upgrades implemented after the Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts.

The crew also plans to test techniques and materials to repair shuttle wing panels and tile damage. Columbia's wing was damaged during launch by a chunk of foam insulation that fell off the tank.

The damage went undetected until after the shuttle's fatal return to Earth's atmosphere for landing 16 days later.

During Discovery's planned 12-day mission, the crew plans to fly to the International Space Station to deliver cargo and make repairs.

The shuttle also will transport German astronaut Thomas Reiter to the outpost to join its two-man crew. The station crew had been cut to two members from three following the Columbia accident and the grounding of the shuttle fleet, in order to save on supplies. Since the accident, the station has been dependent on Russian cargo and passenger ships for transport.

The other shuttle crew members are pilot Mark Kelly, flight engineer Lisa Nowak, Michael Fossum, Stephanie Wilson and British astronaut Piers Sellers.