Shuttle moves to launch pad

Tests continue in hopes Discovery can blast off for space station in early July


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle Discovery was rolled out to its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center yesterday amid growing optimism that the mission will be ready for a July 1 liftoff.

The biggest threat to the launch date remains uncertainty about whether the shuttle's external fuel tank is safe to fly after the removal of a foam ramp from the tank's exterior.

The ramp was taken off after a 1-pound piece broke free during Discovery's launch last July and narrowly missed the shuttle.

NASA engineers have completed wind tunnel tests designed to gather data about the effects of flying the tank without the ramp. Researchers are studying the data to make sure the redesign is safe.

Preliminary indications from the analysis are good, said Wayne Hale, NASA's space shuttle program manager. "But we won't know until we add up the last column of numbers."

"I have a good degree of confidence it will all come out good," Hale said, "or we wouldn't have rolled the vehicle out."

NASA managers are scheduled to meet June 7 to make a final decision on the changes to the tank, although it's possible the issue might not be resolved until Discovery's flight readiness review on June 16-17.

The mission, an 11-day test flight that will deliver supplies to the International Space Station, is scheduled to lift off during a window extending from July 1 to 19.

Hale also expressed optimism that NASA would launch two more shuttle missions in August and December if the tank for the later flight is ready in time.

"We're planning to get three flights off this year," he said, "but it will be tight."

Atop a huge Apollo-era crawler, Discovery began the 4.2-mile trek to Kennedy's Launch Pad 39B a few minutes before 1 p.m. The trip, which normally takes six to seven hours, was stopped temporarily when a bearing on the crawler transporting the shuttle overheated.

Michael Cabbage writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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