NASA'sfirst space shuttle to fly since the Columbia disaster will launch as plannedon July 13, shuttle officials said Thursday.
After more than two years of training and re-training, the seven astronauts of NASA's STS-114 mission are now set to ride the space shuttle Discovery spaceward at 3:51 p.m. EDT (1951 GMT) as soon as their 19-day launch window opens.
"We arecurrently go for launch on July 13," said NASA chief Michael Griffin during a pressconference at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Griffin andother shuttle program and launch managers announced the decision after atwo-day flight readiness review.
"It's justan outstanding day to be this close to get the shuttle flying again," said NASAlaunch director Michael Leinbach told reporters. "It's a great, great feeling."
NASA'sthree remaining space shuttles have been grounded since Feb. 1, 2003, when theColumbia orbiter broke apart as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere, killingits seven-astronaut crew. The orbiter's heat-resistant skin was damaged at liftoffby a chunk of external tank insulation foam, which punctured its left wingleading edge and allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter during reentry,investigators later found.
Earlierthis week, an independent task group found that NASA was unable to meet threeof the 15 recommendations Columbia investigators believed should be addressedbefore the agency launched its next shuttle flight. The task group said NASA isstill unable to completely prevent orbiter damage from ice or foam debris atlaunch, and that its on-orbit shuttle repair techniques were still too nascentto be considered reliable.
Griffin andother NASA shuttle officials said the space agency has managed to lower thoserisks for Discovery's flight.
Discovery'sSTS-114 flight, commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, will culminatetwo and a half years of redesigns and modifications to enhance orbiter andexternal tank safety.
"We wentliterally from stem to stern on the vehicle...to make sure that we did come backsmarter and surer of a safe result," said Bill Parsons, NASA's shuttle programmanager, during the briefing.
Griffinsaid the he spent almost two hours speaking with Collins and her crew about the launch decision.
"The crewis go for launch, and they want us to be go for launch," Griffin said. "Theywant to return to flight, but they don't want us to rush to flight."
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