Video: NASA: Shuttle will go despite worries staff and news service reports
updated 10/18/2007 6:35:06 PM ET 2007-10-18T22:35:06

NASA on Tuesday confirmed that it will try to launch the space shuttle Discovery on Oct. 23 on a construction mission to the international space station, ruling out a need to replace possibly defective heat shield panels.

The shuttle will haul a key connection node to the space station that will allow additional science laboratories owned by the European and Japanese space agencies to be hooked up to the orbital outpost.

The space agency had briefly considered delaying October’s shuttle mission after an independent group of engineers raised concerns about microscopic cracks in three of the 44 heat shield panels that protect the wings from the extreme heat of atmospheric re-entry. The wings’ leading edges can get as hot as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,600 degrees Celsius).

Engineers were evenly split on whether Discovery’s flight to the international space station should be delayed. After an all-day meeting on Tuesday, top managers concluded that repairs weren’t needed, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.

Managers reviewed the analysis and decided the slight degradation posed no threat to the shuttle or its seven-member crew, NASA officials said at a news conference. Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said changing out the heat shield panels would have meant delaying the launch for 60 days.

“The preponderance of evidence in my mind says that we have an acceptable risk to go fly,” Hale said.

Hale said changing out the three heat shield panels would have caused at least a 60-day delay in Discovery's launch. The shuttle schedule is already finely tuned to complete space station construction in time for the fleet's projected retirement in 2010.

Engineers still don't fully understand why the protective coating on some of the shuttle's wing panels is coming off, and Hale acknowledged that the concerns would require additional follow-up. "Right now we've got a yellow flag out, and we're trying to be very careful," Hale said.

NASA has paid close attention to heat shield damage since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

A hole in Columbia’s wing panels, caused by insulating foam falling off the shuttle’s external fuel tank during liftoff, caused the craft to tear apart as it tried to return to Earth for landing, killing the seven astronauts.

This report includes information from Reuters, The Associated Press and

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