NASA gives go-ahead for launch tomorrow of space shuttle Discovery

12-day mission is the first since Columbia disaster


ORLANDO, Fla. - NASA sailed through launch preparations yesterday while the crew of the space shuttle Discovery practiced landings and got ready for their planned historic mission this week.

Top managers met at the Kennedy Space Center to discuss technical issues but emerged with no immediate showstoppers. Liftoff is scheduled for 3:51 p.m. tomorrow.

"We've had a series of discussions over the past several weeks, going over all the risks" involved in a shuttle flight, said Wayne Hale, NASA's deputy shuttle program manager. "There comes a point in time where you decide you have reached an acceptable level of risk, and I think we are at that point.

"Now is the time to go fly."

Once in orbit, Discovery and its crew of seven astronauts are to carry out a 12-day mission that includes docking with the International Space Station and conducting three spacewalks. While outside, the astronauts are to replace broken equipment on the station and test repair techniques that might be used someday to patch up a shuttle in orbit.

The mission is the first since Columbia disintegrated over Texas in February 2003 as the space shuttle headed for a Florida landing. Columbia had been damaged during launch when a piece of foam broke off the external tank and struck the left wing, punching a hole that allowed hot gases inside during re-entry.

NASA must develop repair methods in case another ship is damaged in the future.

The high-stakes mission will be led by NASA's only woman shuttle commander, retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins. She is joined by Air Force Col. James Kelly, the flight's pilot; Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with Japan's space agency; and NASA astronauts Charles Camarda, Stephen Robinson, Andrew Thomas and Wendy Lawrence, a Navy captain.

While the countdown continues, forecasters say weather conditions look promising for tomorrow. Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters is predicting a 70 percent chance of good conditions at launch time.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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