NASA clears shuttle Discovery for launch next week

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla, Oct 17 (Reuters) US space agency NASA confirmed it will try to launch the space shuttle Discovery on October 23 on a construction mission to the International Space Station, ruling out a need to replace possibly defective heat shield panels.

The shuttle will haul a key connection node to the space station that will allow additional science laboratories owned by the European and Japanese space agencies to be hooked up to the orbital outpost.

The US space agency had briefly considered delaying October's shuttle mission after an independent group of engineers raised concerns about microscopic cracks in three heat shield panels that protect the wings from the extreme heat of atmospheric re-entry.

The wings' leading edges can get as hot as 3,000 degree Fahrenheit (1,600 Celsius), which is about the temperature of the sun's surface.

Managers reviewed the analysis and decided the slight degradation posed no threat to the shuttle or its seven-member crew, NASA officials said at a news conference.

''The preponderance of evidence in my mind says that we have an acceptable risk to go fly,'' said space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

NASA has paid close attention to heat shield damage since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

A hole in Columbia's wing panels, caused by insulating foam falling off the shuttle's external fuel tank during liftoff, caused the craft to tear apart as it tried to return to Earth for landing, killing the seven astronauts.


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