NASA has pushed back the date for its first space shuttle launch since the Columbia tragedy, delaying the flight one week to allow more time to complete much-needed paperwork and analyses, the space agency said Wednesday.
The Discovery orbiter and its STS-114 crew will launch no-earlier than May 22, shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said during a teleconference with reporters.
Previously, NASA officials had set the opening of Discovery's launch window at May 15.
"The May 15 launch date was just a target and we always knew that we would have to revisit it," Parsons said, adding that the shuttle will be launched when it is ready and not on a deadline.
The decision to reschedule Discovery's launch window was already under discussion going into the mission's design certification review meeting Tuesday, shuttle officials said
"It was obvious that ... there was still a certain amount of analysis that needed to be done, of paperwork that needed to be done," Parsons said.
The launch delay will allow time for NASA to complete a final debris verification review for Discovery's flight next week and perform additional launch load analyses for the shuttle's new orbital boom - a sensor-laden system that the STS-114 crew will use to scan their protective thermal protection tiles for damage.
Parsons said the additional time will also allow shuttle officials to deliver paperwork to the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Force, an independent panel evaluating the space agency's launch preparations. The task force postponed a late-March meeting due to the need for paperwork.
"We're hoping to present to them on the 4th, 5th and 6th of May," he said, adding that a flight readiness review meeting is scheduled for May 10.
A long effort
NASA has spent more than two years redesigning orbiter components and developing new tools and procedures to enhance space shuttle safety. Discovery's STS-114 mission, a test flight, is NASA's first opportunity to shakedown those modifications.
Among those changes - and one reason for Discovery's initial May 15 to June 3 launch window - is a flight rule calling for a daylight launch and well-lit conditions external fuel tank separation.
Discovery only has one, five-minute period in which to lift off during each launch window day, though shuttle officials are confident that they will step up to the task.
Wayne Hale, NASA's deputy shuttle program manger, said that all of Discovery's lighting restrictions will be aided by a new plan to reboost the space station in its orbit.
"It's very fortunate that the orbital mechanics worked out that way," Hale said of the station's reboost, during which it will burn propellant. "It not only sets us up for the launch window, but also prepares the station for a Progress cargo rendezvous in June."
There is also an option of extending Discovery's launch window by a few days should it be needed, though the lighting conditions will gradually get deteriorate after June 3, shuttle officials said.
"We just know that it is a possibility and that we could talk about," Parsons said, adding that currently the launch window cutoff is set at June 3.
More time for training
Discovery's launch delay will give mission managers time to conduct one last simulation of the spaceflight and help lighten some of the training requirements for the STS-114 crew.
"Their [training] schedule was trending toward the higher side of what we allow," Hale said. "Over the next few days the crew is going to take advantage of that extra time and get rest for launch."
A rehearsal of Discovery's launch countdown is slated for May 4.
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