Image: Discovery crew
The shuttle Discovery's crew arrives at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday for next week's launch. Astronaut John "Danny" Olivas is at the microphone, flanked by (from left) Nicole Stott, Sweden's Christer Fuglesang, Jose Hernandez, Patrick Forrester, pilot Kevin Ford and commander Rick Sturckow.
By Managing editor
updated 8/19/2009 1:57:22 PM ET 2009-08-19T17:57:22

NASA will try to launch the space shuttle Discovery next week after settling outlying concerns with the foam insulation covering the spacecraft's external fuel tank.

Discovery is now slated to blast off next Tuesday at 1:36 a.m. ET from a seaside launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch date decision came after an extended, two-day meeting by top NASA officials to review whether the shuttle was safe to start a nearly two-week trek to the international space station.

"I think we're ready to go fly," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief. "We've got a pretty tough mission in front of us again. These station missions are not easy."

Gerstenmaier told reporters that the decision to try to launch Discovery next week was unanimous, though there was a lively debate over whether more tests should be performed on the shuttle's foam-covered external tank. A handful of engineers favored performing the extra tests — which could delay the flight to October — but ultimately signed off for Tuesday's launch attempt, he added.

More foam than usual fell from the shuttle Endeavour's fuel tank during its launch toward the space station in July. NASA isn't sure exactly why the foam debris popped free from a ridged part of the tank called the "intertank" just above its midpoint. Engineers spent weeks testing foam on the same area of Discovery's 15-story tank, finding it fit for flight.

"We don't expect foam losses in those areas," said John Shannon, NASA's space shuttle program manager, adding that some foam debris shedding may still occur. "That was sufficient flight rationale and that's what we're going to go fly with."

NASA has kept a close watch on the amount of foam debris during shuttle launches since a large piece damaged the shuttle Columbia's heat shield during its 2003 flight, leading to the spacecraft's destruction during re-entry. Seven astronauts were killed in the tragedy.

Stocking up space station
Commanded by veteran shuttle flier Rick Sturckow, Discovery's seven-astronaut crew is poised to go on a 13-day mission to deliver a new crew member, a cargo pod packed with 15,200 pounds (6,894 kilograms) of fresh supplies and experiment gear, and a treadmill named after American comedian Stephen Colbert. Three spacewalks are planned for the mission.

Earlier this year, Colbert attempted to have a new room for the space station named after him by urging fans of his Comedy Central television show, "The Colbert Report," to write his name in during a NASA online poll. NASA named the new room Tranquility in honor of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but dubbed the new station treadmill riding on Discovery the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT, as a consolation prize.

NASA officials said Colbert has been invited to watch his namesake treadmill launch into space, but the comedian has said he will not be able to attend.

Discovery's STS-128 mission will mark the fourth shuttle flight of up to five planned for this year. NASA has until Aug. 30 to launch the mission before it would have to consider standing down until Oct. 17 to avoid a space traffic conflict with Japan's first H-2 Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned cargo ship slated to begin its maiden flight to the space station on Sept. 10.

More on shuttle Discovery | international space station

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