NASA Delays Discovery Launch Until February

Needing more time to evaluate repairs to the space shuttle's fuel tank, the space agency has pushed the launch, originally scheduled for Nov. 5, into next year.

NASA on Friday delayed the final launch of Space Shuttle Discovery yet again, with the aircraft now scheduled to fly no earlier than Feb. 3, 2011, to allow for more testing on repairs that were made to the shuttle's fuel tank.

The move follows a series of launch delays due to cracks on the fuel tank as well as other mechanical glitches, including a dangerous hydrogen leak.

If delays continue, Discovery might not make it off the ground before the scheduled launch of Endeavor, which is scheduled for Feb. 27, 2011. That flight is meant to mark the end of the shuttle program.

NASA has repaired the latest problem -- cracks on two, 21-foot support brackets, called stringers, that are part of Discovery's external fuel tank. Engineers determined that the foam on the stringers cracked during initial loading operations for Discovery's STS-133 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on its flight originally scheduled for Nov. 5.

NASA wants to give time for engineers to fully determine exactly why the cracks occurred, which is why additional testing time is needed, said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations, during a press conference about the delay Friday.

Specifically, the agency wants to replicate two scenarios -- one to look at how loading operations may have caused the problem, and the other to look at how loading conditions on the pad could have created it, he said.

NASA had delayed the Discovery flight until Nov. 30 and then pushed it to no sooner than Dec. 17. The latest delay came after a NASA review board responsible for evaluating the flight-worthiness of the craft met Thursday to assess repair work. The space shuttle entered service in 1984, and is one of three remaining shuttles of the six originally built. Atlantis and Endeavour remain in service, while NASA lost Challenger and Columbia in separate accidents that claimed the lives of their crewmembers. The first shuttle, Enterprise, was a test vehicle that was retired shortly after its initial series of suborbital flights in 1977.

When Discovery finally makes it off the ground, it will bring a series of components to improve the International Space Station (ISS). They include the Permanent Multipurpose Module, which was converted from the multipurpose logistics module Leonardo to provide additional storage for station crew, as well as a place for astronauts to experiment.

The space shuttle also will deliver some unique cargo to the ISS -- a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 co-developed by NASA and General Motors.

Once it arrives at the station, the robot will become a permanent resident, performing mundane tasks and setting up work sites for astronauts to eliminate some of their busywork.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer, journalist, and therapeutic writing mentor with more than 25 years of professional experience. Her areas of expertise include technology, business, and culture. Elizabeth previously lived and worked as a full-time journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City; she currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, hiking with her dogs, traveling, playing music, yoga, and cooking.

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