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Space shuttle Discovery nears space station

Written by: Staff
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HOUSTON, July 6 (Reuters) The space shuttle Discovery closed in on the International Space Station today, as NASA nursed hopes its troubles with the fleet's fuel tanks were nearing an end.

The shuttle was scheduled to arrive at the orbital outpost at 2022 hrs (IST).

Before docking, commander Steve Lindsey planned to slowly flip the shuttle so the station crew can photograph and videotape the heat-resistant ceramic tiles on Discovery's belly.

The tiles are part of the heat shield which keeps the shuttle safe during its scorching plunge back through Earth's atmosphere prior to landing.

The inspection is part of an effort to prevent a repeat of the 2003 disaster when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry because debris damaged the heat shield during launch.

Bits of foam had popped off Discovery during launch, but preliminary results of an inspection that the shuttle crew did on Wednesday found no apparent damage on the ship's wings and nose cap, flight director John Shannon told reporters.

The laser and close-up photographs did show several streaks of bird droppings, which Shannon said would not affect the shuttle, and a protruding cloth strip beneath the shuttle's left wing.

Shannon said it was highly unlikely anything would need to be done about the cloth strip because it is not in an area that raises concerns of overheating.

''Overall, the tank performance was really outstanding,'' said Shannon late on Wednesday.

COLUMBIA'S LEGACY NASA had hoped to resume assembling the space station last year, but when Discovery flew in 2005 its fuel tank dropped several large pieces of foam during launch, prompting NASA engineers to decide to redesign the tank. The insulation prevents the formation of ice on the tank, which could be even more dangerous than foam if it broke off and hit the shuttle.

Since the 2003 accident, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, NASA has spent about .3 billion to fix the shuttle's fuel tank and to develop in-flight inspection and heat shield repair techniques.

So far, NASA is optimistic its second redesign of the fuel tank was successful, clearing the way for the resumption of space station assembly. Work on the 0 billion complex, which is sponsored by 16 nations, has been on hold since the Columbia accident while NASA struggled to return its three remaining shuttles to flight.

Discovery is carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,272 kg) of equipment and supplies to the space station, but its most important delivery is a new crew member. Germany's Thomas Reiter will transfer to the station crew shortly after the shuttle's arrival.

The station has been one person short since 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. Europe and Japan have laboratory modules awaiting rides to orbit aboard the space shuttle. NASA needs to finish the outpost before the shuttles are retired in 2010.

The shuttle astronauts plan to conduct two or three spacewalks during their stay at the station. Their most important task is to repair a rail cart used to haul equipment to various work sites outside the station.

REUTERS SK DS1125

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