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NASA checks crack in shuttle foam insulation

Written by: Staff
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., July 3 (Reuters) NASA inspectors found a crack in the foam insulation of space shuttle Discovery's fuel tank and managers met today to decide how the crack might affect tomorrow's launch.

''It's in the insulation near a bracket on the external fuel tank,'' a NASA spokeswoman said.

Scheduled launches on Saturday and yesterday were scrubbed because of bad weather and the discovery of the crack could delay the launch again because of fears that falling foam insulation could cause a repeat of the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The crack was found during a routine overnight inspection.

NASA is trying to send Discovery on a make-or-break mission to the International Space Station. It would be just the second shuttle launch since the destruction of Columbia and the deaths of seven crew, an accident caused by falling foam that damaged the spacecraft's delicate heat shield.

Foam still is expected to fall off during launch, even though NASA has spent 1.3 billion dollars in the past three years to attempt to fix the problem and to make safety upgrades to the shuttle.

Discovery is scheduled for retirement in 2010 and another major problem on this mission could bring a premature end to the shuttle program. That would leave the 100 billion dollar space station, a multi-nation project, unfinished.

NASA had planned to go ahead with the shuttle mission despite the objections of senior NASA safety and technical officers, who wanted more time to fix insulation foam on the fuel tank.

The space agency says the crew is not necessarily at risk because of a plan to have them hole up in the space station if they find that Discovery's heat resistant tiles have been damaged. The damaged ship, meanwhile, could be flown back without a crew.

Among the 2 tons of cargo the shuttle will be toting to the International Space Station is a set of cables that could be used to hot-wire a shuttle so it can be remotely controlled.

The US space agency doesn't want to abandon the 2 billion dollar spaceship. Nor does it want the shuttle to return unguided through Earth's atmosphere and possibly crash in a populated area.

''The one thing we're not going to do is put a dead orbiter out into space to just fall where it may,'' said John Shannon, the deputy space shuttle program manager.

REUTERS SHB RN2309

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