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NASA Officials Support July 1 Shuttle Launch Date Despite Reservations

Discovery STS-121 crew board NASA's Astrovan onway to the shuttle. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Jun 22, 2006
Two NASA officials who deemed a July 1 launch for the space shuttle Discovery too risky without alterations, said they would not oppose the launch schedule approved by NASA chief Michael Griffin.

"At this point it's a done deal. We now go forward and we look to see if we can launch this vehicle next week," Bryan O'Connor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's top safety official told a telephone news conference Wednesday.

NASA on Saturday announced a launch window of July 1 - July 19 for the Discovery, after a final review in which not all officials agreed with the decision.

At the review, O'Connor and NASA chief engineer Christopher Scolese said they had suggested removing the insulating foam covering 37 metal brackets on the shuttle's huge external fuel tank to eliminate the risk of damage from falling pieces of foam at takeoff.

The insulating foam prevents ice-buildup on the fuel tank, which is loaded with tonnes of extremely cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

NASA continues to be extremely sensitive about safety issues since the Columbia shuttle disintegrated upon reentry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

That accident was caused by a foam ramp breaking off during launch and bashing into the shuttle's wing, damaging crucial insulation panels.

The shuttle program was suspended for nearly three years as NASA reviewed both technologies and operations procedures to ensure vulnerabilities were not overlooked.

But NASA officials acknowledged they had not resolved problems which dogged the Discovery mission in July 2005 involving pieces of foam which again broke off during launch.

The foam did not cause damage to the shuttle, and after several days of camera study and spacewalks to inspect the craft, it was judged safe to return to Earth.

The US space agency suspended the shuttle program after the 2005 mission to resolve the problem, but after months of research and testing officials admitted they still don't understand it.

Even so, NASA officials insisted Saturday that the issue poses relatively minor danger.

O'Connor and Scolese said their concerns over a July 1 launch were related to the shuttle and not its seven-man crew, who in case the shuttle sustained any damage would not be at risk because they could seek refuge in the International Space Station, where they could eventually be rescued by another shuttle or multiple Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Scolese said NASA Administrator Griffin had also made clear on Saturday that the July 1 launch date would not put the seven astronauts' lives at risk.

Griffin, however, acknowledged that another catastrophic event could force an end to the NASA space shuttle program: "If we have a major incident in launching the space shuttle I would not wish to continue with the program."

During the upcoming mission the seven Discovery crew, including European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter of Germany, will test safety equipment and procedures, deliver supplies to the space station and perform maintenance on it.

Griffin noted the need to get on with the shuttle program, which is necessary to complete construction of the ISS.

Sixteen or more flights have been envisioned for the shuttle program before it concludes in 2010.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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