CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA'spreparations for its first space shuttle flight in more than two years aregoing well, with only three days remaining until the planned July 13 launch.
All butprimed for flight, the space shuttle Discovery sits atop Launch Pad 39B at NASA'sKennedy Space Center (KSC) with its payload stowed for liftoff, launchofficials said here today.
"Discoveryitself is in excellent shape," NASA test director Jeff Spaulding said during amorning countdown status briefing. "The aft and mid-body of the vehicle havebeen closed up for flight."
Launchofficials will be called to their stations today at 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT),and at 6:00 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT) the clock will begin counting off the days,hours and seconds leading up to Discovery's planned launch, Spaulding added.
Discovery'sSTS-114 mission is scheduled to lift off at 3:51 p.m. EDT (1951 GMT) on July 13,though launch officials have a 10-minute window to make the space shot. Thatwindow opens at about 3:45 p.m. EDT (1945 GMT) on launch day. NASA hopes tolaunch Discovery by July 31 at the latest.
The Discoveryorbiter is the first of NASA's three remaining shuttles to launch since the2003 loss of Columbia and its astronaut crew. Columbia was damaged duringliftoff by launch debris, which pierced the orbiter's vital heat-resistant skinon the shuttle's left wing. The shuttle broke apart during reentry on Feb. 1,2003, when hot atmospheric gases entered the hole caused by the launch debris.
NASAofficials have spent the time since the accident redesigning shuttle externaltanks to prevent launch debris like that which doomed Columbia. New orbitaltools and procedures have also been developed to survey the health of shuttlesin orbit. Discovery's flight will be NASA's first test of those new tools andprocedures, and a vital resupply mission to the International Space Station(ISS).
"A lot hashappened in the last two and a half years," Spaulding said. "Our focus...hasshifted from one of recovery and investigation to one of redesign and improvement, tomission processing and now launch."
The outlookis promising for Discovery's July 13 launch, though there is a 30 percentchance that poor weather could prevent the space shot, said Kathy Winters, NASA'sshuttle weather officer, said. Should Discovery not launch on July 13, thepotential of a weather violation increases to 40 percent for the following days,she added.
Launchofficials said Discovery could lift off up to three days after its initial launchtarget in the event of a scrub. Launch attempts could take place onJuly 13-14, and July 16, though the shuttle's external tank and other reactantswill have to be serviced after that point, they added.
The 28,000-pound(12,700-kilograms) payload for Discovery's STS-114 space shot, however, can sitaboard the orbiter indefinitely. It could remain of the orbiter even if NASAmisses a July launch entirely, and resorts to the next shuttle flight windowthat runs between Sept. 9-24, shuttle officials said.
"Ourhardware is very insensitive to time," said Scott Higginbotham, NASA's payloadmanager for the STS-114 mission. "So we're content to sit and wait as long asit takes to get this mission started."
Discoveryis hauling a fresh cargo module laden with new tools, food and other supplies -including a 600-pound (272-kilogram) gyroscope to be installed during theSTS-114 flight - to the ISS.
"It suredoes feel good to be back in the saddle again, it's been too long," Higginbothamsaid. "We're excited to get ... started with the assembly of the space stationagain."
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