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NASA clears space shuttle for return to Earth


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NASA clears space shuttle for return to Earth

Engineers: Protruding gap filler in Discovery's belly not a problem


Sunday, July 9, 2006; Posted: 6:17 p.m. EDT (22:17 GMT)



Mission Control informed the crew of six that the ship's thermal shielding is "100 percent cleared for entry" in another week.


"Boy, that is great news, that's fantastic," shuttle commander Steve Lindsey said. "And to get all that done by the end of flight day six ... is just amazing."


"Everyone here around the room, as you can imagine, is most happy," Mission Control replied.


Only one heat shield issue remained going into the late afternoon mission management meeting: a 2-inch-long piece of fabric filler sticking out about an inch from thermal tiles on Discovery's belly.


Engineers determined it wasn't necessary to have an astronaut pluck the strip during a spacewalk and that it posed no concern for the spaceship's return to Earth on July 17. So managers gave the heat shield an official bill of health.


Officials had already decided that several other nicks and spots -- ranging from bird droppings to frayed fabric -- were no big deal.


Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said the healthy shuttle -- and the crew's accomplishments in orbit so far -- pave the way for the next mission in just over 11/2 months. That's when assembly will resume at the international space station; construction was halted by the 2003 Columbia disaster.


Sandwiched between a daring spacewalk Saturday and a crucial but more routine spacewalk Monday, Discovery's crew had an easy day Sunday, pilot Mark Kelly said. They were scheduled to work only 15 hours, instead of 16 hours.


"Today has been a relatively light day compared to the others," Kelly said in a video news conference.


Those first five days of the mission were so busy "we had to take our meals on the run," Lindsey said.


Saturday, during their first spacewalk, astronauts Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum demonstrated that they could make repairs to the shuttle from the end of a 100-foot combination of a robotic arm and a boom. (Watch astronauts test a daring spacewalk technique -- 2:15)


The duo will make their second spacewalk Monday to replace a cable on the space station's rail car.


"We need that thing to be working to move big pieces around during assembly," Sellers said Sunday. "It was dead on one side, kind of limping on just two wheels."


Sellers and Fossum will replace part of the transporter's umbilical reel, which weighs about 330 pounds on the ground. In what may be an awkward maneuver, Sellers will be holding the old umbilical in one hand and the new one in the other, Fossum said.


"The most challenging thing tomorrow is going to be just the choreography, going back and forth in the payload bay," Fossum said. "It's quite a ballet."


NASA planned to post on its Web site Sunday first-of-its-kind video of Discovery's launch as seen from the reusable solid rocket boosters. The video, recovered last week with the boosters, mesmerized engineers in Houston on Saturday.





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