Cape Canaveral (Fla), Sep 30: NASA hopes to launch its December shuttle mission a week earlier than planned to give its workers time off for the holidays, agency officials said.
NASA had targeted Dec. 14 as the liftoff date for shuttle Discovery on the second International Space Station assembly mission since the 2003 Columbia accident but has moved the date forward to December 7.
''It was an opportunity to allow employees to have more time with their families over the holidays,'' said Kennedy Space Center spokeswoman Jessica Rye yesterday.
A December 14 launch could have seen the shuttle returning to Earth around Christmas Day.
Discovery's launch, now scheduled for December 7 at 9:38 p.m.
EST (0808 hrs IST), would be the first since the Columbia disaster to take place at night.
Managers imposed daylight-launch requirements after the accident so cameras would have a clear view of the shuttle's fuel tank and any debris that might fall off and strike the spaceship.
Columbia was destroyed and its seven-member crew killed due to a debris strike on the shuttle during launch. The damage went undetected and the ship broke apart as it plunged through the atmosphere for landing on February 1, 2003.
NASA redesigned the shuttle fuel tank to stem foam shedding and imposed rigorous in-flight inspections to check for damage to the ship's heat shield. Shuttles have flown three times since the Colombia accident, twice without incident.
Managers have yet to officially clear Discovery for a night-time launch, but the new launch date points to growing optimism that NASA has recovered from the accident.
Rather than sunlight, engineers will rely on radar to detect any potentially hazardous debris. Illumination from the shuttle's solid rocket boosters also should help camera views.
NASA needs to fly at least 14 more construction missions to the half-built, 100-billion dollars space station before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
Shuttle Atlantis completed a 12-day mission on September 21 to install a new power system on the orbital complex.