Discovery cleared for landing; loose object poses no risk
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida •
The U.S. shuttle Discovery was cleared yesterday to return to Earth after a successful mission to deliver and open Japan’s first space laboratory at the International Space Station.
NASA gave the shuttle, with seven astronauts aboard, the green light after it determined that the loss of a small clip from its rudder speed break posed no risk for the landing in Florida, scheduled for today.
The V-shaped thermal barrier clip, measuring 6.5-by-2.5 centimeters, is only needed during the shuttle’s ascent, the U.S. space agency said.
“It’s not an issue whatsoever,” deputy shuttle program manager LeRoy Cain told reporters.
NASA also determined that Discovery’s heat shield was in “very good shape” and the shuttle was “safe for reentry,” Mr. Cain said.
The agency has kept a close eye on the shuttle’s protective thermal layer since a crack in Columbia’s heat shield caused the orbiter to explode as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003, killing its seven astronauts.
Discovery commander Mark Kelly, speaking on NASA TV from the shuttle, admitted the seven-person crew had initial concerns when they saw an object floating past them, but were reassured by news that it was a clip.
“We’ve seen these things come off before,” he said, adding: “It is no worry at all, it has no effect on re-entry and Discovery is in great shape.
“We have some stuff to do tonight like put up the seats, and get out our suits and the parachutes on the seats ... and then we’ll be ready to go tomorrow morning.”
Richard Jones, the flight re-entry director, said he was expecting good weather for today’s landing.
“We are looking for a very successful landing tomorrow,” he said.
After 14 days in space, Discovery undocked from the International Space Station on Wednesday about 344 kilometres above the South Pacific east of Australia, and began preparing for its return to Earth.
The shuttle’s main task was to deliver, open and outfit the 11.2-metre long, 4.4-metre wide main module of the Japanese Kibo laboratory. The mission also included three spacewalks.
In addition, Discovery brought a new crew member to the ISS, Greg Chamitoff, who replaced fellow American astronaut Garrett Reisman.
Mr. Reisman is returning to Earth after a three-month stint at the outpost, and told NASA TV yesterday that he was primarily looking forward to “being back home, sleeping in my own bed — and using my own toilet.”
The only toilet at the International Space Station began to fail just before Discovery’s launch, and spare parts were sent up on the shuttle to repair it.
Mr. Reisman said the spacewalk was one of the best things he had done while at the ISS, and also described the incredible views from space, in particular one of the United States at night as a weather front moved across the country.
“The thunderstorms had this electric blue light like a disco or something, and around it was the warm glow of all the city lights. It was absolutely spectacular,” he said.
NASA hopes to complete construction of the space station by 2010, viewing it as a central part of space exploration ambitions because it allows scientists to study the effects of microgravity on humans.