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Endeavour expected to land in Florida today

Tue., Aug. 21, 2007

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Shuttle Endeavour should streak ashore over South Florida today, announcing its arrival with twin sonic booms as it skirts east of Lake Okeechobee en route to a 9:32 a.m. PDT landing at Kennedy Space Center.

A landing today would cap a 13-day mission highlighted by the long-awaited flight of teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan, whose educational work in orbit was overshadowed by a small gouge in Endeavour’s heat shield.

The weather forecast looks good, shuttle managers said Monday.

Concern that Hurricane Dean could force an evacuation of mission control in Houston faded Monday.

NASA is confident it will be able to control the landing from Houston and even try again Wednesday if today’s landing is called off.

If the shuttle misses the 9:32 a.m. landing time today, it could land at 11:06 a.m. It would take a different route for the later landing time, one that would take it directly over Hurricane Dean, though by several hundred thousand feet.

“The vehicle is going to feel absolutely no effects from the storm,” said re-entry flight director Steve Stich.

Shuttle managers have spent much of the mission studying a 3 1/2 -inch gouge from a piece of debris that broke loose from a bracket on the external fuel tank during liftoff and pierced two adjacent heat tiles under the right wing.

After weighing test results that showed the damage was not a threat to the crew or shuttle against the risks of a spacewalk to repair it, NASA decided to fly as is.

“I assure you Endeavour is not going to experience any catastrophic damage,” Stich said.

Shuttles experience the most intense heating during a 10-minute period that begins minutes after entering the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Shuttle Columbia was three minutes into that period when it started breaking apart in 2003 from a hole that a piece of foam had punched in its wing during launch, according to the final accident report.

A fix is in the works to replace the brackets with titanium that would not require a foam cover to prevent icing. But it will not be ready until next summer.

NASA is considering four or five options that would involve reducing the amount of foam that could break free and hit the shuttle, program manager Wayne Hale said, adding that he hoped an interim change could be made without affecting a planned Oct. 23 launch.

Until Endeavour’s launch, the bracket was not considered a high priority, though changes were in the works, Hale said.


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