July 11, 2006

Astronauts Hail Success: “We’re Back, Baby”

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The space shuttle Discovery astronauts said on Tuesday they had met the key goals of their mission and put NASA on the road to recovery from the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Their comments in press interviews from the shuttle came a day after a spacewalk that the U.S. space agency hailed as a big step toward resuming assembly of the half-built $100 billion International Space Station. A third and final spacewalk is planned for Wednesday.

"We were all hoping in NASA for two things to come out of (this flight). The first thing is that the shuttle would fly with no problems, no big dings on ascent ... and we seem to have achieved that," said astronaut Piers Sellers.

"The second thing is that we would leave (the space) station in good shape and ready to pick up the assembly sequence," he said. "I think we're there now."

"My brother put it very well," said shuttle pilot Mike Kelly, recounting a conversation with his twin and fellow astronaut Scott Kelly. "He said 'We're back, baby."'

Discovery is making only the second shuttle flight since Columbia broke apart while returning to Earth on February 1, 2003. Discovery launched on July 4 from Florida and is scheduled to return on July 17.

President Bush put in a private call to the crew on Tuesday morning, thanking them for their work and saying he had watched the spacewalk with interest.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush told the astronauts they "represent the best of service and exploration." He also invited them and their families to visit the White House after the mission, Perino said.

After three years of work to fix the problems that led to the Columbia accident, NASA officials said they were feeling good about Discovery's apparently successful flight.

The redesigned shuttle fuel tank, which triggered Columbia's demise and which failed its first test flight last year, in particular is giving the agency confidence it can proceed with station assembly as early as next month.

"It gives everybody a really good feeling that we're getting there," said lead flight director Tony Ceccacci.

Columbia was hit by a piece of foam insulation that fell off its fuel tank during launch. The debris hit the ship's wing and damaged its heat shield, providing a path for superheated gases to blast into the structure as it headed toward Florida for landing 16 days later. All seven astronauts aboard died.

NASA, which has made $1.3 billion in safety upgrades, said on Saturday that Discovery came through launch with no major damage and should return safely when it lands next week.

Sellers and Michael Fossum performed a key spacewalk on Monday in which they repaired a space station transport system that can put in place the major segments needed to complete the outpost.

The fix paved the way for an August 28 flight in which shuttle Atlantis will carry a massive solar energy unit to the station to resume construction that NASA halted after the Columbia disaster.

NASA hopes to fly 16 more shuttle flights to finish the station before its three-shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz)