July 7, 2006

Astronauts Pleased with Shuttle Performance

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Astronauts on Discovery said on Friday they were happy with the spacecraft's performance, which was good news for NASA since more trouble with the shuttle could force the space agency to scrap the program.

"At this point we're really satisfied. We haven't had many problems with Discovery," pilot Mark Kelly said in a radio interview from the shuttle on Friday. "We feel really good about the condition."

Kelly's comments reflected NASA's growing optimism that it has fixed a problem that caused the destruction of the shuttle Columbia and killed seven astronauts on February 1, 2003.

Insulating foam from a fuel tank broke loose shortly after launch and broke a hole in Columbia's wing heat shield that went undetected.

The spacecraft disintegrated over Texas 16 days later when fiery atmospheric gases entered the breach as Columbia glided toward landing in Florida.

On the last shuttle flight a year ago, foam again fell from the fuel tank at launch, although none struck the spacecraft.

NASA has spent $1.3 billion on safety upgrades and, based on Discovery's performance, is increasingly confident they were successful.

Since the shuttle launched on Tuesday, NASA has used an array of cameras and sensors to inspect Discovery and so far turned up no major problems. More inspections are to be done.

"Of course we're still collecting data, more data to analyze, but it sure looks good so we're obviously very pleased," said flight commander Steve Lindsey.

The three remaining shuttles -- two have been destroyed in flight -- is critical to finishing the $100 billion space station.


Discovery linked up with the space station on Thursday and on Friday attached an Italian-built cargo module to it carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,272 kg) of equipment and supplies.

In addition to food, clothing and other supplies, the module holds a freezer for experiment samples, a European Space Agency incubator to grow plants in space and a new oxygen generator so the station's crew size can eventually be doubled to six.

Once unloaded, the module will be filled with trash and broken equipment from the station and placed back in the shuttle for return to Earth.

Discovery also brought German astronaut Thomas Reiter to the station to join current station crew members Jeff Williams and Pavel Vinogradov for a six-month stay.

Later in the day, the shuttle crew was scheduled to reattach the 50-foot (15-meter) sensor boom to the spaceship's robot arm and take pictures and laser images of two strips of cloth poking out from surrounding tiles on Discovery's belly.

Flight director John Shannon said the crew would also likely check an area beneath the shuttle's nose that may have a piece of loose fabric.

"We're struggling a bit to find areas to go look at," Shannon said. "It's somewhat of a surprise, but a pleasant surprise."

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz)