Shuttle Cracks Won't Delay Launch: NASA Report

The long delayed final launch of the space shuttle Discovery will move ahead as planned, despite evidence of new cracks.

The launch of the space shuttle Discovery remains on track for early February, despite the need for additional repairs to the shuttle's fuel tank, according to NASA officials. The 26-year-old Discovery, which has been in orbit 38 times and is the senior citizen of the U.S. space program, is to be retired after the final launch. The craft is now scheduled to fly no earlier than Feb. 3, 2011, to enable more testing on repairs that were made to cracked supports on the shuttle's fuel tank and to other mechanical problems that included a hydrogen leak.
Reuters reported further NASA investigations revealed underlying cracking in structural supports. Kennedy Space Center spokesman Allard Buetel told the news agency on Thursday that X-rays of the backside of the tank, completed this week, showed additional cracks in three more of the aluminum lithium tank support structures. "The newly detected cracks currently are under evaluation, and there has been no decisions on what effect, if any, these cracks will make on future plans,'' NASA said in a statement.
When Discovery heads to the International Space Station (ISS) on its final mission, it will be taking with it two key components-the Italian-built Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) and Express Logistics Carrier 4 (ELC4)-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.
NASA also announced it has awarded a sole source contract to Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. (LMSSC) for Systems Engineering for In-Space Servicing (SEISS). This cost-plus-fixed-fee, 18-month contract has a value of $31.2 million.
LMSSC will provide systems and discipline engineering support to develop and execute two demonstrations to test and verify new robotic servicing capabilities using the Dextre robot aboard the International Space Station. The Canadian Space Agency's Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or Dextre, is a two-armed robotic system designed to perform intricate maintenance and servicing tasks, which previously would have required spacewalks.
The first demonstration will use a customized payload task box, Dextre and specialized tools to robotically demonstrate refueling and repair tasks in orbit. Tasks will include locating, accessing and uncapping valves and transferring simulated liquid fuel. During the second demonstration, Dextre will test and evaluate a variety of tools, sensors and instruments to support autonomous rendezvous and capture capabilities for orbiting spacecraft systems.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is developing both demonstration payloads. These demonstrations are intended to increase NASA's technical capability to conduct robotic in-space servicing. The contract encompasses requirements definition and verification, hardware design, support of flight and ground hardware/software development, and mission planning support.