July 1, 2005 in Nation/World

NASA says Discovery ready for July 13 launch

Todd Halvorson Gannett News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA plans to launch the space shuttle Discovery and its seven astronauts in mid-July in the first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia accident, officials said Thursday.

“We’re ‘go’ for launch of Discovery on July 13,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.

The announcement came at the conclusion of a two-day flight readiness review at Kennedy Space Center.

Managers determined that safety measures taken since the Columbia accident have reduced risks to an acceptable level. The planned July 13 lift-off falls inside a launch window that extends through July 31.

Blasting off at some point in that window would enable NASA to launch during daylight and would allow Discovery to jettison its external tank on the sunlit side of Earth.

The idea is to get clear pictures of the fuel tank to make certain safety enhancements work as intended.

If the shuttle doesn’t fly in July for some reason, the next launch window is Sept. 9 to Sept. 24.

The mission to the International Space Station will test safety improvements made since the Columbia accident, install a replacement gyroscope necessary to steer the station, and replenish outpost supplies.

The Columbia shuttle and its crew of seven astronauts were lost on Feb. 1, 2003, when the craft broke apart upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

The cause of the catastrophe was traced to a piece of insulation foam that broke off from the giant external fuel tank. The foam slammed into the shuttle and opened a small hole in the leading edge of the craft’s left wing, allowing superheated gas to penetrate the vehicle and tear it apart as it descended over the southwest United States.

Since then, NASA has spent an estimated $1 billion and two years making many improvements to the external tank, the shuttle orbiters and associated launch systems.

The scheduled July launch of shuttle Discovery will be the most closely watched lift-off in the shuttle program’s 24-year history.

Additional and more powerful cameras will follow the shuttle and its fuel tanks into the sky during the crucial first moments of launch.

Once in orbit, the craft will rendezvous with the International Space Station. The shuttle’s pilot will pirouette the craft while the space station crew uses powerful cameras to photograph every inch of the orbiter.

All of the launch and on-orbit photographs will be reviewed for damage that may have occurred on lift-off.

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