NASA's first space shuttle to fly since the Columbia disaster will launch as planned on 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 are currently go for launch on July 13," said NASA chief Michael Griffin during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Griffin and other shuttle program and launch managers announced the decision after a two-day flight readiness review.
"It's just an outstanding day to be this close to get the shuttle flying again," said NASA launch director Michael Leinbach told reporters. "It's a great, great feeling."
NASA's three remaining space shuttles have been grounded since Feb. 1, 2003, when the Columbia orbiter broke apart as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere, killing its seven-astronaut crew. The orbiter's heat-resistant skin was damaged at liftoff by a chunk of external tank insulation foam, which punctured its left wing leading edge and allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter during reentry, investigators later found.
Earlier this week, an independent task group found that NASA was unable to meet three of the 15 recommendations Columbia investigators believed should be addressed before the agency launched its next shuttle flight. The task group said NASA is still unable to completely prevent orbiter damage from ice or foam debris at launch, and that its on-orbit shuttle repair techniques were still too nascent to be considered reliable.
Griffin and other NASA shuttle officials said the space agency has managed to lower those risks for Discovery's flight.
Discovery's STS-114 flight, commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, will culminate two and a half years of redesigns and modifications to enhance orbiter and external tank safety.
"We went literally from stem to stern on the vehicle...to make sure that we did come back smarter and surer of a safe result," said Bill Parsons, NASA's shuttle program manager, during the briefing.
Griffin said the he spent almost two hours speaking with Collins and her crew about the launch decision.
"The crew is go for launch, and they want us to be go for launch," Griffin said. "They want to return to flight, but they don't want us to rush to flight."
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