Shuttle Discovery races toward space station link-up
HOUSTON, July 6: Shuttle Discovery raced toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station today where it was to drop off a German astronaut for a six-month stay amid signs of recovery for the troubled US space program.
The shuttle, which launched on Tuesday from Florida, was closing in on the space station at a rate of 442 km per orbit and was scheduled to link up with the outpost at 1052 hrs (local time).
Before docking, commander Steve Lindsey planned to slowly flip the shuttle so space station crewmembers Jeff Williams and Pavel Vinogradov can photograph heat-resistant tiles on Discovery's belly that protect it during the scorching return to Earth.
The photos are part of the ongoing inspection process that began at Discovery's launch on Tuesday from Florida and has turned up no significant damage to the spacecraft.
NASA officials hope the clean bill of health given so far indicates they have solved the problem of falling foam from shuttle fuel tanks that caused the Columbia disaster in 2003 and appeared again in the first post-Columbia shuttle flight last summer.
A few pieces of foam, which insulate the tanks from ice formation, shook loose from the fuel tank as Discovery ascended toward space on Tuesday, but they were small in comparison to the 1.67 pound chunk that broke a hole in Columbia's wing heat shield.
''Overall, the tank performance was really outstanding,'' flight director John Shannon told reporters.
Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth because its broken heat shield allowed fiery gases to enter its structure.
The seven astronauts on board were killed.
Since then, NASA has spent 1.3 billion dollars on safety upgrades trying to prevent another shuttle disaster, which likely would bring a premature end to the shuttle program that is scheduled to keep flying until 2010 so NASA can complete the half-finished space station.
Work on the 100 billion dollars complex, which is sponsored by 16 nations, has been on hold since the Columbia accident.
Discovery is carrying more than 5,000 pounds of equipment and supplies to the space station. While there, shuttle astronauts Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum will perform spacewalks that will include repairs to a transport system used during station construction.
Discovery, which currently is set to come back on July 16, also will drop off Germany's Thomas Reiter, who will join Williams and Vinogradov on the space station for what is scheduled to be a 175-day stay.
It will be the first time the station, which flies along at 17,500 miles per hour about (360 km) above Earth, has had a full three-man crew since May 2003. The crew was cut back to two after the Columbia accident to save on supplies.
Reiter, who previously made a six-month flight on the Russian Mir space station, also becomes the first resident station crew member who is neither American or Russian.
NASA hopes to fly a total of 16 shuttle missions before 2010 so it can complete the space station. Europe and Japan have laboratory modules waiting to be installed that must be carried to the orbiting outpost by the space shuttle.