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Shuttle commander defends launch delay

The commander of the first space shuttle mission in more than two years counsels patience as she and her crewmates begin a dress rehearsal for their oft-delayed launch.
Discovery commander Eileen Collins waves Monday as she walks with fellow crew member Mike Thompson across the tarmac at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility. Collins and mission pilot James Kelly were flying in the shuttle training aircraft as part of their countdown dress rehearsal.Chris O'meara / AP

The commander of the first space shuttle mission in more than two years counseled patience as she and her crewmates arrived here Sunday for a dress rehearsal of their oft-delayed launch.

Veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, who will head the shuttle Discovery's mission, said NASA made the "right decision" last week when it postponed the launch by at least seven weeks due to safety concerns.

Over the next three days, Collins and Discovery's six other crew members will be going over the pre-launch routines and emergency procedures for a mission now scheduled to begin no earlier than July 13.

The highlight of the rehearsal, known as the terminal countdown demonstration test or TCDT, comes on Wednesday morning when the astronauts suit up and strap themselves into their shuttle seats to simulate the final hours of the countdown.

Collins said she looked forward to working with the launch team at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "It's great practice for them, as well as it is for us," she told about 30 journalists at Sunday's arrival ceremony.

In accordance with tradition, she and the other crew members flew in T-38 training jets from Johnson Space Center in Texas to the Florida shuttle landing site. Six of the astronauts — including Collins and shuttle pilot Jim Kelly as well as Charles Camarda, Wendy Lawrence, Stephen Robinson and Andrew Thomas — lined up for photos at the same runway used by the space shuttle. About a half-hour later, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi arrived for his own photo op.

First post-Columbia rehearsal
This is the first such dress rehearsal since the shuttle Columbia's breakup during re-entry in February 2003, a tragedy that killed all seven astronauts aboard and led to the grounding of the shuttle fleet. Investigators concluded that Columbia's left wing was damaged shortly after liftoff when it was struck by a piece of foam debris from the external fuel tank, and that the undetected damage set the stage for the shuttle's fiery doom 16 days later.

Since the tragedy, many of the shuttle program's safety procedures have been revised, and as a result ground controllers will be dealing with much more input from sensors and cameras during Discovery's launch. But NASA representatives said the routine for the TCDT itself will not be much different from what it has been for past shuttle missions.

This rehearsal is unusual in that it takes place at least two months before the curtain is scheduled to rise. Usually, the TCDT is scheduled about two to four weeks before launch, but on Friday NASA announced that the earliest launch opportunity would be moved back from May 22 to July 13, due to concerns about the potential for ice to form on liquid-oxygen lines from the shuttle's external fuel tank. It was the second postponement in two weeks.

The spaceship, which was rolled out to its launch pad less than a month ago, will have to be rolled back into the 52-story-high Vehicle Assembly Building to add another heater to a critical section of the fuel tank — a process expected to take about a month. That rollback will occur after this week's rehearsal.

'We've made the right decision'
Collins said NASA was right to delay the launch — and in fact seemed to console the assembled journalists.

"We are hoping that you are not too disappointed with this," she said of the postponement. "I know we were marching along toward the [May] launch date, but I truly believe that we've made the right decision in going to July. It's going to give the team more time to prepare, and like anything in life, the longer you prepare for something, the better it's going to be. And we want this mission to be very, very successful."

Discovery's 12-day mission is aimed at delivering much-needed supplies to the international space station as well as testing the upgraded techniques for inspecting and repairing the shuttle in flight. Pre-launch safety reviews are continuing, and NASA managers could still find other issues that need to be resolved.

The postponement to July will "give us more time to make sure that we haven't missed anything, and make sure that the objectives that we want to attain on this mission are completed as safely and as successfully as possible," Collins told journalists.

"So thank you for your patience," she said. "We are certainly going to be patient in this, and take the remaining time to make sure that we're doing the best that we can."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to July 13 as the deadline for launch rather than the "no earlier than" date.