Shuttle prelims proceed smoothly

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – With no major technical snags and a fair weather forecast, NASA cruised through the countdown Monday for its first space shuttle flight in 2 1/2 years. One manager described the excitement by saying, “It’s like Christmas is coming.”

Discovery and its crew of seven are set to blast off Wednesday in front of a multitude of NASA cameras watching for the kind of flying debris that doomed Columbia in 2003. The shuttle’s destination: the international space station.

Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons had this message for the two space station astronauts awaiting the shuttle’s arrival: “It’s probably time for them to get ready. I think we’re on our way.”

Typical afternoon thunderstorms were in the forecast, but meteorologists put the chances of an on-time launch at 70 percent.

Monday’s two-days-before launch readiness meeting lasted 3 1/2 hours, considerably longer than was customary before Columbia took off on its final, fatally flawed mission. Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said there was “spirited” discussion, and dissenting opinions were heard over a few technical issues.

But he said the vigorous discussion was “just a new symbol of the openness” at NASA since the Columbia disaster. Investigators blamed the tragedy in part on the space agency’s “broken safety culture,” or a tendency to downplay risks and discourage engineers from speaking up.

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