CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA managers decided yesterday that space shuttle Discovery is ready to fly and set July 13 as the launch date.
During a two-day readiness review held at Kennedy Space Center, shuttle program officials identified no major issues likely to threaten Discovery's long-anticipated return to flight.
Liftoff July 13 is scheduled for a five-minute window opening at 3:51 p.m.
NASA managers described the decision to set an official date as an emotional moment ending a 2 1/2 -year launch hiatus after the 2003 Columbia accident.
A standing ovation erupted in the meeting room after the traditional polling of managers for whether they were "go" or "no go."
"I had a lump in my throat," said Bill Parsons, NASA's shuttle program manager. "For us to get the go to proceed from this point on was a big step, and we're pretty proud of what we've accomplished."
Shuttle officials still must complete considerable paperwork before Discovery flies, such as updating an assortment of shuttle hazard studies.
Much of that task is expected to be finished at meetings of NASA's Program Requirements Control Board on July 7 and 8.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin expressed confidence at a news conference after the meeting that Discovery was safe to fly.
"It is my assessment from technical reviews that have been held over the last weeks and months ... that the proximate causes of the loss of Columbia have been addressed," Griffin said. "We honestly believe this is the cleanest flight we have ever done."
Yesterday's announcement came three days after a NASA advisory panel found the program had not fully met three of 15 recommendations for safely returning to flight.
The Stafford-Covey Task Group found NASA had made considerable progress but had not met the literal wording of the recommendations.
The decision sets the stage for Discovery's countdown to begin at 6 p.m. July 10. The mission's seven astronauts, commanded by retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, are scheduled to arrive at Cape Canaveral that morning.
"I had a note last night from Eileen Collins as she was on her way back from flying the shuttle training airplane," said Bill Readdy, head of NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate and a former astronaut.
"They're quite satisfied with where we are. They're ready to go - really ready to go - and think that we have met the burden."
Discovery's astronauts are launching on a 12-day mission that has two primary goals. One is to conduct a test flight that will assess changes made to the shuttle and new procedures implemented after the Columbia accident. The other goal is to deliver supplies and equipment to the International Space Station.
One of the only remaining obstacles to launch could be the weather. Central Florida is notorious for its afternoon thunderstorms during the month of July.
NASA managers were optimistic that the weather would cooperate before the coming launch period ends July 31.
"The rain will let up and we hope it lets up on July 13," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said. "I'll tell you launching in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of July will be a challenge."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.