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NASA to launch shuttle despite crack in foam

Written by: Staff
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla, July 4 (Reuters) NASA has decided to go ahead with today's launch of space shuttle Discovery on a mission critical to the spacecraft's future despite finding a small crack in the foam insulation on the ship's fuel tank, a NASA official said.

Discovery is due to lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 2:38 p.m. EDT (1838 GMT) launch this afternoon, after two weather-related delays during the weekend.

''We're going to continue with the launch countdown,'' Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told reporters last evening after agency experts met to decide whether the launch could go ahead.

Asked if NASA was taking any additional risk with this decision, he said: ''We're about the same risk as we were before ... I don't think we're taking any additional risks.'' The crack, about 5 inches by about 1/2 inch (12.7 cm by 1 cm), was found during a routine overnight inspection.

The tank's insulation has bedeviled NASA since fallen foam caused the shuttle Columbia to break up, killing seven astronauts in 2003.

Discovery's flight is intended to prove the tank, which has been redesigned twice since the accident, no longer sheds hazardous chunks of foam during launch.

If it fails or if the shuttle sustains some other serious problem, the shuttle fleet could be grounded permanently, leaving the future of the half-built International Space Station in jeopardy.

NASA's top safety officer and chief engineer had argued for additional repairs on the tank's foam before Discovery's planned 12-day mission.

Before the weekend launch attempts the shuttle's tank was filled with supercold propellants and apparently the contraction and expansion in the liquid oxygen in the tank caused ice to form in the foam covering a metal bracket.

After the fuel was removed following the decision to postpone launch, the ice melted, causing the foam to crack.

Inspectors using cameras and sensors found the crack yesterday as well as a small foam wedge that apparently fell from the damaged area and landed on the launch platform.

FUTURE OF SPACE PROGRAM The foam that fell is less than half the size of what would damage the shuttle's heat shield, had it flown off during launch instead of on the ground.

One option the officials considered was to delay the launch until Wednesday to allow time for workers to inspect the damage close-up.

Discovery's flight is just the second since the Columbia disaster. NASA had hoped to resume regular shuttle missions last year but the foam problem that downed Columbia reoccurred during Discovery's launch in July 2005.

A major problem with Discovery on this mission could bring a premature end to the U.S. space shuttle program and leave the 100 billion dollars space station, a multi-nation project, unfinished.

NASA has spent 1.3 billion dollars in the past three years to attempt to fix the foam problem and to make safety upgrades to the shuttle, which is scheduled for retirement in 2010. Foam still is still expected to fall off during launch.

The mission is going ahead over objections of senior NASA safety and technical officers, who wanted more time to work on the fuel tank's long-standing foam-shedding problem.

But the space agency says the crew is not at risk because of a plan to have them stay aboard the space station and await rescue if their ship was too damaged to safely return home.

REUTERS DH BST0755

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