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Space

Raring to boldly go next

Astronauts prepare for a May shuttle launch, though continuing foam problems may delay it.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published February 18, 2006


CAPE CANAVERAL - Six astronauts selected for the next space shuttle mission say they are eager and hopeful to launch in as few as three months, even though NASA still is evaluating potentially dangerous foam that fell during the last flight.

"We're very ready to go and confident in the work everybody here and all the teams are doing, and looking forward to a having a great mission," said first-time astronaut Lisa Nowak, in a news conference at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA last year launched the shuttle Discovery for the agency's first manned space flight since the 2003 tragedy of Columbia, which disintegrated as it returned to Earth because it had sustained damage during launch from falling foam.

When foam also fell during last year's flight of Discovery, it was a blow to NASA, because it spent years and tens of millions of dollars to try to prevent the shedding material that had previously doomed Columbia. The foam is an insulator that covers most of the external tank, the giant torpedo-shaped container that holds half a million gallons of rocket fuel.

The potential danger from the latest foam episode was considered so serious that even as Discovery orbited Earth last summer, NASA announced it would suspend any future shuttle flights until it satisfactorily resolved the issue.

The astronauts Friday said NASA is continuing to fix the foam problem by redesigning and testing portions of the external tank. They hope work will be successful and allow them to launch in May.

"We will lose foam on this flight, just like every other," said commander Steven Lindsey, who will be making his fourth space flight. "The key is to make sure that the foam we do lose is a small enough size so it can't hurt us if it hits the vehicle."

The astronauts are forging ahead with their training in hopes that Discovery will be ready to fly in May, but acknowledged the schedule could be pushed back. They had come to Cape Canaveral to practice working with some of the equipment they will use aboard Discovery on their flight.

Their mission plan calls for three spacewalks and further testing of techniques for repairing the vital external tiles that shield the spacecraft from blistering heat as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

In the wake of the Columbia disaster, NASA came under intense criticism for a closed-mouth management culture that discouraged employees from speaking up about even potentially deadly problems such as the falling foam.

The astronauts chosen for the new 12-day mission, just like those of last summer's flight, say they think their NASA colleagues are working intensely to ensure the astronauts' safety.

But Lindsey, who has been an Air Force test pilot, was frank in acknowledging the risks.

"It's a complex mission, it's a complex vehicle, a complex and dangerous business," he said. All the analysis in the world will not replicate space flight itself, he said.

"Every flight I've been on, there's something unexpected that happens. That's the nature of the business we're in."

Besides Lindsey and Nowak, the astronauts who spoke Friday included pilot Mark Kelly and mission specialists Mike Fossum, Stephanie Wilson and Piers Sellers. One other crew member, Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency, was not present. Reiter is scheduled to fly into space aboard Discovery, and then will join an existing crew at the International Space Station and remain there as the others return to Earth.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or at 727 893-8232.

[Last modified February 18, 2006, 02:15:16]


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