Collins and Kelly
Chris O'Meara  /  AP
Shuttle commander Eileen Collins and pilot James Kelly, in the orange flight suits, walk with technicians at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday. The two practiced flying in jets modified to simulate the space shuttle in gliding mode.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/11/2005 9:42:33 PM ET 2005-07-12T01:42:33

After an unusually spirited debate, some "loose ends" still need to be tied up before Discovery is cleared for liftoff, mission managers said Monday.

The plan for Discovery's 12-day flight is being closely scrutinized because it represents NASA's first space shuttle mission since the catastrophic loss of the shuttle Columbia in February 2003. During the milestone mission, the shuttle's crew will test procedures for inspecting the shuttle for damage and fixing cracks if necessary. They will also deliver tons of supplies to the international space station and resume construction work.

Managers thrashed through the issues standing in the way of final launch clearance during a 3 1/2-hour meeting on Monday, said deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, who also heads the Discovery mission's management team.

A handful of issues were still unresolved by the end of the day, but engineers continued working on those issues into the night, Hale said. "There are a couple of loose ends to tie up, but I wouldn't consider them major. ... I would say that we do have to resolve those issues before we go fly," he said.

The managers voiced confidence that Discovery would be cleared for liftoff as scheduled, at 3:51 p.m. ET Wednesday, plus or minus five minutes.

"I think we're on the way," shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said.

"It's like Christmas is coming," Hale said.

Hale said Monday's lively discussion demonstrated that "we are much more open" about voicing concerns in the wake of the Columbia tragedy. The shuttle broke up during atmospheric re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard and bringing the shuttle fleet to a standstill. Investigators faulted hardware flaws as well as a cultural mind-set at NASA that discouraged dissent with top managers over safety issues.

In response, Hale noted,  "almost the entire management structure has been changed" in the shuttle program, and said engineers "are a lot more empowered to bring problems to the management team."

In fact, one dissenting opinion became part of the record for Monday's flight readiness review: Three engineers from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama said corrosion and loose tolerances involving an electrical link that is supposed to be cut at a precise moment during launch — known as the T-0 umbilical system — could pose a "catastrophic risk" of failure.

But other assessments, including an evaluation from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, determined that the system would not pose a problem for Discovery's mission, known as STS-114. The managers sided with the majority view.

Parsons said the managers agreed that the T-0 umbilical system could be improved. "They just believed it didn't need to be done before STS-114," he said.

Hale listed at least three other loose ends that were being tied up:

  • A review of issues involving unusual data from the external fuel tank's low-level sensors, which engineers saw during recent tests.
  • Standards for wind speeds in the upper atmosphere, as measured by high-altitude balloons. Two balloon tests showed unacceptable wind levels, but the criteria may turn out to be too conservative, Hale said.
  • Paperwork showing that all the newly developed shuttle repair tools being sent up for testing during Discovery's mission are certified as safe to fly.

Managers also had to review the history of launch incidents doing damage to the shuttle's protective tiles, but Hale said, "I think we closed that one out."

The next management meeting was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Hale said managers wouldn't hesitate to delay liftoff if necessary. If it requires one more day to tie up the loose ends, "we take one more day," he told MSNBC.com. However, he noted that spaceflight is inherently risky, and although the risks can be reduced, they can never be totally eliminated.

"There comes a point in time when you decide that we have reached an acceptable level of risk to go carry out the mission that we have, and I think that we are at that point. ... Now's the time to go fly," he told reporters.

Meanwhile, preparations at the launch pad continued apace with the loading of the shuttle's internal fuel supplies. Engineers were "tracking no significant issues," said NASA test director Pete Nickolenko.

The forecast for launch day was unchanged: just a 30 percent chance of unacceptable weather conditions, with thunderstorms the main concern. For backup opportunities on Thursday and Saturday, forecasters projected a 40 percent chance for weather-related postponement.

The mission's payload manager, Scott Higginbotham, told reporters that the shuttle was "ready to fly" with 28,000 pounds of cargo — including supplies for the space station as well as a replacement gyroscope and a storage platform that will be installed during a series of spacewalks. All that cargo could stay aboard the shuttle undisturbed even if the launch was delayed for weeks, he said.

Discovery's seven-astronaut crew was going through its own schedule of preparations, including pre-launch meetings and a series of practice flights for commander Eileen Collins and pilot Jim Kelly. The fliers made diving descents in jets that have been modified to simulate the aerodynamic characteristics of a gliding space shuttle.

Routine preparations for a not-so-routine mission
It was all part of the pre-launch routine for a far-from-routine shuttle mission. In the 2 1/2 years since the Columbia tragedy, the shuttle's external fuel tank has been redesigned in an effort to reduce the risk of foam insulation or ice flying off and hitting the orbiter. Investigators believe damage done by flying foam shortly after Columbia's launch set the stage for hot atmospheric gases to get inside a hole in the orbiter's left wing and destroy it from within.

NASA also has developed new tools and techniques that could be used for inspecting the shuttle — and perhaps fixing it as well.

For this flight, NASA has added or upgraded scores of cameras around the launch site — including airplanes equipped with high-resolution cameras to watch for any sign of potential damage. Post-Columbia safety guidelines require that the launch take place during the daytime, and that the cameras are capable of capturing three useful views of the shuttle's rise.

In response to questions from reporters, Nickolenko said he didn't expect photography to be a factor that would lead to a launch delay, and NASA launch weather officer Kathy Winters said it was hard to predict whether a particular cloud formation might force mission managers to call for a postponement

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