NASA sets a date for the final launch of space shuttle Discovery after finding a fix for external fuel tank cracks.
After months of delays caused by the appearance of cracks in space
shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank, NASA officials announced the
shuttle now has a planned launch date of Feb. 24. Space shuttle program
managers briefed senior NASA officials Jan. 10 about the status of
repairs and engineering evaluations associated with cracks found on
21-foot-long, U-shaped aluminum brackets called stringers on the
shuttle's external fuel tank.
Managers approved installing small strips of metal, called radius
blocks, on the tank's remaining stringers. "While additional testing
and analysis continue, results so far show the modification will
provide additional strength to the stringers," NASA officials said in a
statement. Officials said technicians at NASA's Kennedy Space Center
have begun modifications and repairs to space shuttle Discovery's
stringers. Radius blocks are
being added to 94 stringers, meaning the entire circumference of the
external tank will be strengthened by the time all the repairs and
modifications are finished.
At NASA's Johnson Space Center, STS-133 Mission Specialists Alvin Drew,
Tim Kopra and Nicole Stott will conduct a review of spacewalking
procedures. Commander Steve Lindsey and Pilot Eric Boe will fly to
Kennedy in their T-38 training jets for approach and landing runs in
Shuttle Training Aircraft at the Shuttle Landing Facility, according to
the space agency.
When Discovery heads to the International Space Station on its final
mission, it will be taking with it two key components-the Italian-built
Permanent Multipurpose Module and Express Logistics Carrier 4-that will
provide spare parts and storage capacity to the orbiting complex.
Discovery also will deliver Robonaut 2, which will become the first
humanoid robot in space.
Shuttle program manager John Shannon told reporters during a Jan. 11
news conference that a combination of inferior material and assembly
issues was to blame for the cracks, but expressed confidence in the
solution. "We're going to fly with a lot of confidence in this tank,"
the Associated Press reported
him saying. "We've gotten rid of the uncertainty."
Adding a different, more somber layer of uncertainty to NASA's shuttle
proceedings are the events surrounding last week's attempted
assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords-her husband is
space shuttle Endeavour commander Mark Kelly, scheduled to pilot the
shuttle program's last mission in April. NASA officials declined to
comment on the issue during the news conference.
"Out of respect to the family, we really are not ready to answer those
questions today. We're going to let Mark decide really kind of what he
needs to do," Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA space operations, said,
according to an AP report. "Our hearts and prayers go out to the
family, and we're really thinking about Mark in everything we do."
Discovery was NASA's third space shuttle orbiter to join the fleet at
Kennedy Space Center and is currently the oldest orbiter in service.
Early in its career, Discovery provided a base so astronauts could
retrieve satellites, test new technologies and conduct two-week-long
experiments in microgravity. NASA turned twice to Discovery for
Return-to-Flight missions after accidents with shuttles Challenger and
Columbia, and it launched the agency's landmark observatory, the Hubble