President Bush said Thursday that although NASA has had to carry out on-orbit repairs on the space shuttle Discovery, he is confident space officials will make whatever decisions are necessary to ensure the safety of the astronauts.
“I believe that the mission is important, and I know that the mission directors will make the right decision about how to proceed,” Bush told reporters at his Texas ranch, where he was meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. “Ours is a country that values the safety of our citizens, particularly those we ask to take risks in space.”
Bush said he was "amazed" by the on-orbit repairs that astronauts carried out during a spacewalk on Wednesday. Spacewalker Stephen Robinson easily removed two slips of protruding gap filler from the shuttle's belly — a feat that the president said was "remarkable."
The problems with the shuttle — now about 225 miles (350 kilometers) above Earth — had raised concern among some observers that its return could be hazardous and cause further setbacks for U.S. space exploration to the moon and beyond.
Bush said Andy Card, White House chief of staff, has been in touch with the NASA administrator on a regular basis. “I’ve got the confidence — all the confidence — that they will make the right decision,” Bush said.
After Bush spoke, NASA cleared Discovery for landing, saying the craft was "safe to fly for re-entry."
Discovery was the first shuttle to return to orbit in the two and a half years since Columbia broke apart over Texas as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
“The plan right now is to phase out the shuttle by 2010 and then begin to put a strategy in place that will use the moon as a launching spot for further exploration,” Bush said. “I appreciate the administrator working on getting that strategy in place so that when the decision is made to finally get rid of this phase of exploration, we’ll be ready to take on the new phase.”
Discovery docked at the international space station on July 28, a day after NASA decided to ground future shuttle flights. The decision was made because a chunk of insulating foam flew off Discovery’s fuel tank during liftoff — as it did in Columbia’s doomed mission.