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Shuttle Discovery a Go after Last Minute Fixes


The space shuttle Discovery is undergoing final preparation for today's launch. NASA engineers were briefly alarmed yesterday when a shuttle window cover fell 65 feet and smashed a few tiles on the orbiter. The damaged section was quickly replaced. The only real concern at the moment is the weather. Afternoon thunderstorms could keep the shuttle grounded. It's the first mission in nearly two and a half years since Columbia broke up over Texas. The purpose is to bring supplies to the space station and conduct repairs. It is also very much a test flight. NPR's Richard Harris reports from Cape Canaveral, Florida.


The space shuttle is perched on its launch pad and poised for flight. It doesn't look any different than usual, but the shuttle and, especially its external fuel tank, have been modified significantly as a result of the Columbia accident. A large chunk of foam fell off the tank at liftoff and damaged a shuttle wing. The new design is supposed to dramatically reduce that hazard.

At a news conference yesterday, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said the flight will put those repairs to the test.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, NASA): After this flight, we will have a much, much, much better idea of whether or not our--the measures we have taken to reduce debris shedding from the external tank have been effective or not effective. Now our best engineers have put their best efforts on that and we devoutly hope that they have been effective. But that's why they call them test flights.

HARRIS: At the crew's preflight news conference earlier this spring, Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins, said testing the shuttle itself is just one major goal of the mission.

Commander EILEEN COLLINS (Discovery): The other major goal of the flight is the resupply and reservicing of the space station which we'll be doing--by bringing up the multipurpose logistics module and through our three EVAs, our three space walks.

HARRIS: One of those space walks is to replace a faulty component on the space station, a device that helps steady it in orbit. A second is to put a platform on the outside of the station for later use. And a third is to test tools that are being developed to repair damage to the outside of the shuttle.

At a preflight briefing, astronaut Charlie Carmarda says he doesn't trust the experimental repairs enough to use them in an actual emergency.

Mr. CHARLIE CARMARDA (Astronaut): When I look at how difficult this problem is, and we never thought this would be possible, to actually repair the vehicle in space. It's a very extreme environment. And depending on the type of damage, whether it's in the belly of the vehicle, the tiles, or whether it's on the wing leading edge, makes a big difference as to whether you're going to take the risk and say, hey, this repair is safe or it isn't safe.

HARRIS: NASA officials say if by chance there is damage to the shuttle on this flight, they won't try to patch it. Instead, the seven Discovery astronauts will join the two men already aboard the space station. Another shuttle will be prepared for launch for a rescue mission. Under that disaster scenario, Discovery would be ditched, unmanned, in an ocean, and that would be the end of the space shuttle program.

But that's a very unlikely outcome. NASA administrator Griffin said NASA's best and brightest have been working to make the shuttle safer than it's ever been.

Mr. GRIFFIN: What I've said, you know, several times today and probably will find reason to say again, is we've done everything that we know to do. There is nothing that we know of that we have not addressed. Are there things out there that we don't know about? There may be. We sure hope not.

HARRIS: In addition to being a test flight and an important mission for resupplying the space station, Discovery's mission will also be a memorial for the seven astronauts killed in the Columbia accident. Commander Eileen Collins reflected on that at the crew's news conference.

Cmdr. COLLINS: We have been thinking about things that we can do on this mission to remember them, not only in our hearts, but in a visual way and a way that we can share with the rest of the world. So I'm going to ask you to watch the mission, and please remember that we are carrying on the mission of the Columbia crew.

HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News, at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida.

STAMBERG: To find out why the launch window for today's flight is only about five minutes, visit npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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