CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The astronauts who will fly on the first post-Columbia shuttle mission landed at Kennedy Space Center late Sunday night for this week's practice countdown, and their commander said NASA managers made the right call by postponing the launch to mid-July.
Veteran astronaut Eileen Collins said Discovery's crew understands why they're not going to launch in May as planned.
"I truly believe we've made the right decision in going to July," Collins said. "It's going to give the teams more time to prepare. And like anything in life, the longer you prepare for something, the better it's going to be. We want this mission to be very, very successful."
NASA last week delayed the launch from May 22 to no earlier than July 13, citing several technical concerns. Most worrisome is new data showing large chunks of ice could build up on a pipeline outside the external fuel tank, break free during launch and damage the fragile heat shield.
Jet engines roared through the night sky Sunday as a caravan of sleek, blue and white T-38 training jets touched down at the Shuttle Landing Facility. The five-man, two-woman crew is here for what's called the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test.
Countdown clocks start ticking early Tuesday. The exercise will enable the shuttle launch team and Discovery's crew to get familiar with all of the procedures they'll go through in the days and hours leading up to the real liftoff of their test flight to the International Space Station.
On Wednesday, Collins and her crew will don pumpkin-orange partial pressure spacesuits and head out to Pad 39B. They'll ride an elevator to the 195-foot level and board Discovery for the last few hours of a simulated countdown.
The practice culminates just before 11 a.m. with a simulated main engine shutdown on the pad. The astronauts then will scramble out of the orbiter to slide-wire baskets that -- in case of a real fire or emergency on launch day -- would whisk them safely away from the gantry.
Sometime after this week's tests, NASA plans to haul Discovery back from the launch pad to the Vehicle Assembly Building to fix the safety problems that prompted them to delay the mission. No dates have been set for the rollback or for Discovery's return to Pad 39B.
"This is a great event for our crew," Collins said. "This is great practice for them as well as it is for us."
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