Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Discovery launch likely next Tuesday

Blogger update, 6:30 p.m.: NASA is now targeting a Discovery launch at 1:36 a.m. next Tuesday. Managers decided late today that Discovery's external tank is OK to fly "as is."

But the mission's executive Flight Readiness Review must cover additional topics Wednesday morning starting at 7:30 a.m. EDT.

The weekend replacement of a venting system cable at launch pad 39A made schedules too tight to try an Aug. 24 launch.

Space shuttle Discovery's crew of seven astronauts is scheduled to fly into Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday evening - unless NASA decides earlier in the day to delay a planned Monday morning launch.

Top agency executives continue to meet today to review readiness for the 13-day supply mission to the International Space Station, but plan to resume their deliberations Wednesday morning.

"They just couldn't get through it all today," said Allard Beutel, a KSC spokesman. "They're going to take as much time as they need, and that means going until tomorrow."

Still to be decided is whether to proceed with the 1:58 a.m. Monday launch, or whether Discovery could still be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs to the external tank, delaying the mission by weeks.

NASA is providing Twitter updates from the review. A post around 5:20 p.m. reported: "The meeting has resumed and we're listening to discussion on whether Discovery's tank requires more evaluation."

Tests as recently as this weekend analyzed the integrity of the foam on the intertank area - visible behind the astronauts' heads in the photo above - where unusual foam shedding was observed during Endeavour's July launch.

Also under analysis has been shedding from an "ice frost ramp" near the top of the tank that has lost foam during three flights since 2007, including a piece twice the allowable size during Endeavour's last mission.

The foam ramps cover 34 metal brackets holding pressurization lines and electrical cabling outside the tank.

Loss of a large chunk of foam from either part of the tank could potentially cause the kind of damage to shuttle heat shields that doomed Columbia's crew in 2003.

NASA expects to wrap up today's meetings by about 6:30 p.m. Beutel said a news briefing after the readiness review's conclusion is expected by 11 a.m. or noon Wednesday.

The briefing participants are:
- Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations
- John Shannon, Space Shuttle Program manager
- Pete Nickolenko, STS-128 launch director

You'll be able to watch the briefing live here -- along with the crew's arrival if the Aug. 24 launch date holds -- here on The Flame Trench. Just click the NASA TV still image on the right side of this page to launch a viewer.

You can also check out NASA's just-released STS-128 Press Kit for more information about Discovery's mission.

IMAGE NOTE: On Aug. 7, the STS-128 crew members gathered on the 225-foot level of NASA Kennedy Space Center's fixed service structure. From left are Commander Rick Sturckow, Mission Specialists Danny Olivas and Christer Fuglesang, Pilot Kevin Ford and Mission Specialists Nicole Stott, Patrick Forrester and Jose Hernandez. The crew members were at Kennedy to take part in the terminal countdown demonstration test, or TCDT, which includes emergency exit training and culminates in the simulated countdown. On the STS-128 mission, Discovery will deliver equipment to the station including science and storage racks, a freezer to store research samples, a new sleeping compartment and the COLBERT treadmill. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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