NASA Readies Discovery for 1st Day of Launch Window

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NASA now plans to resume launching shuttles two years, five months and 14 days after the shuttle Columbia broke up in the skies over Texas during a re-entry accident that killed its seven-member crew.

It will be the culmination of a painful accident investigation, reorganization and more than two years of training and re-training. So now following a flight readiness review that ended June 30, the seven astronauts of NASA’s STS-114 mission are set to ride the space shuttle Discovery on a mission to the international space station that will begin with a launch at 3:51 p.m. EDT (19:51 GMT) the first day of a 19-day launch window.

“We are currently go for launch on July 13,” said NASA chief Mike Griffin during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fl a. Griffin and other shuttle program and launch managers announced the decision after the two-day flight readiness review.

“It’s just an outstanding day to be this close to get the shuttle flying again,” NASA launch director Michael Leinbach told reporters. “It’s a great, great feeling.”

NASA’s three remaining space shuttles have been grounded since Feb. 1, 2003, when the Columbia orbiter broke apart as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing its seven-astronaut crew.

It was the second time in 17 years that NASA had lost a shuttle crew. Following the first accident, a launch mishap that destroyed the shuttle Challenger and killed its crew of seven astronauts, NASA’s shuttle fleet stayed on the ground for two years and eight months.

In the most recent accident, Columbia’s heat-resistant skin was damaged during liftoff by a chunk of external tank insulation foam that broke off and punctured its left wing leading edge, allowing hot atmospheric gases to enter during re-entry, investigators later found.

An independent task group announced June 27 their finding that NASA was unable to meet three of the 15 recommendations the Columbia Accident Investigation Board believed should be addressed before the agency launched its next shuttle flight. The Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group said NASA is still unable to completely prevent orbiter damage from ice or foam debris at launch, and that its on-orbit shuttle repair techniques were still too nascent to be considered reliable.

Griffin and other NASA shuttle officials said the space agency has managed to lower those risks for Discovery’s flight.

Discovery’s STS-114 flight, commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, will culminate nearly two and a half years of redesigns and modifications to enhance orbiter and external tank safety.

“We went literally from stem to stern on the vehicle … to make sure that we did come back smarter and surer of a safe result,” said Bill Parsons, NASA’s shuttle program manager, during the briefing.

Griffin said he spent almost two hours speaking with Collins and her crew about the launch decision.

“The crew is go for launch, and they want us to be go for launch,” Griffin said. “They want to return to flight, but they don’t want us to rush to flight.”