NASA's chief says flight by Discovery `magnificent'

Return trip set to begin after undocking today

August 06, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON - As the slightly damaged orbiter Discovery and its crew began preparations to undock from the International Space Station yesterday, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin defended Discovery's mission, calling it one of the cleanest on record.

"It's been a magnificent flight," Griffin said at an appearance with Texas legislators at the Johnson Space Center. "I don't know what people could want that they haven't seen."

He said critics have fixated on the flaws of the flight, such as insulating foam being shed from the craft's external fuel tank during liftoff and the need for a first-ever space walk to remove protrusions on the underside of Discovery.

He said the crew has accomplished everything it set out to do - replacing a faulty gyroscope on the space station, repairing a second one and delivering 12,107 pounds of water, equipment and food.

Just as critical for the crowded, half-built space station, Discovery will be returning home with 7,055 pounds of trash and broken machinery.

Yesterday, the crew finished returning the Italian-made storage bin that brought up the supplies back to Discovery's payload bay. They also stowed the new 50-foot boom sensor arm that allowed astronauts to inspect Discovery's heat protection system while it was docked.

Today, the orbiter was scheduled to undock from the space station to begin the flight home to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The craft is scheduled to land early Monday morning.

The crew isn't completely out of the woods. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration elected not to fix a torn and bulging piece of insulation blanket under the cockpit window that might have been struck by debris during launch.

While engineers said a piece of the blanket could come off and hit the orbiter amid the forceful aerodynamics of re-entering Earth's atmosphere, they called the possibility remote.

Discovery's flight has suffered a number of glitches, beginning with the foam shedding on launch that caused NASA to ground the fleet until it can make sure no more large foam pieces will dislodge. Columbia was brought down by a piece of foam that struck and tore a hole in the left wing.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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