NASA considers delaying space shuttle launch

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Oct 10 (Reuters) NASA is considering delaying space shuttle Discovery's planned October 23 liftoff to replace three possibly defective heat shield panels on the ship's wing, officials said today.

The shuttle is scheduled to haul a key connection node to the International Space Station so additional science laboratories can be joined to the complex.

NASA managers were meeting at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to review launch preparations.

If replacement of the heat shield panels is ordered, Discovery would miss the three-week launch opportunity that opens October 23, said Kennedy Space Center spokesman Allard Beutel.

The next possible launch period begins December 6 -- a slot NASA has been holding for launch of Europe's Columbus module.

''Our confidence is real high for launch on December 6, but I live in the real world,'' said Bernardo Patti, the Columbus project manager for the European Space Agency.

A new method of analysis flagged the carbon composite heat-shield panels as a potential problem, said Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy program manager for the space station.

Shireman said older methods had indicated there was no issue with the heat shield.

Discussion about the new analysis tool that uncovered the potential problem was set for today afternoon. The panels protect the wings' leading edges from the fierce heat of atmospheric re-entry.

A hole in shuttle Columbia's wing panels, caused by a debris strike during liftoff, led to the loss of the shuttle and its crew in 2003.

Reuters DKS VP0030

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