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Countdown Begins for Space Shuttle's First Flight Since 2003

The crew members of Discovery are, from left, Andrew Thomas, Charles Camarda, Wendy Lawrence, commander Eileen Collins, Stephen Robinson, Soichi Noguchi of Japan and pilot James Kelly. Their launch is set for Wednesday.
The crew members of Discovery are, from left, Andrew Thomas, Charles Camarda, Wendy Lawrence, commander Eileen Collins, Stephen Robinson, Soichi Noguchi of Japan and pilot James Kelly. Their launch is set for Wednesday. (Nasa Via Associated Press)

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By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

NASA begins the countdown today for the launch of the space shuttle Discovery, the culmination of nearly 2 1/2 years of safety improvements and management changes since the Columbia tragedy grounded the shuttle fleet and triggered a national bout of soul-searching over the future of the United States' human spaceflight program.

With Hurricane Dennis expected by NASA to be far enough west and barring another spate of bad weather or last-minute mechanical glitches, Discovery will lift off Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday afternoon carrying seven astronauts, nearly 15 tons of cargo, and the hopes of thousands of technicians and engineers who have striven to rectify the mistakes that doomed Columbia. The three-day countdown begins at 6 p.m. Eastern time.

Shuttle planners have done big things. They redesigned the external fuel tank, built a new boom sensor to look under the wings and enlisted spy satellites to take pictures of the shuttle in flight. And they have done small things. They have equipped the crew of the international space station with cameras for taking snapshots of the shuttle's underbelly. And they placed a putty knife in the repair kit to give astronauts a shot at fixing cracks in the heat shielding.

Space aficionados inside and outside NASA agree that the agency has dramatically reduced the risk of another Columbia-style catastrophe, but it has not reduced it to zero, nor has it made the shuttle "safe."

Safe, for an experimental vehicle that has flown only 113 times, is not an option, and Discovery's mission is a test flight -- the final exam on how good a job NASA has done. "We feel the main way we can get smarter at this point is to go fly," NASA's John F. Muratore said.

Discovery will be away 13 days, spending most of that time at the international space station. Astronauts will replace a gyroscope, install a stowage platform for replacement parts, unload 29,725 pounds of equipment and supplies, and pick up 25,121 pounds of mostly trash and junk that have accumulated aboard the station since the last shuttle visit, in 2002.

But the mission is anything but routine.

Discovery's flight is not only the first since the Columbia accident but also the first since President Bush announced a plan to return humans to the moon by 2020 and eventually to send them to Mars.

The first step is to finish construction of the space station, and NASA wants to do that by 2010, retire the shuttle, replace it with a next-generation spaceship and move on to the moon. That timetable would be impossible if the shuttles could not fly.

Discovery will also seek to reaffirm the United States' status as the world's preeminent space-faring nation, a status that the new NASA administrator, Michael D. Griffin, says ought to be "beyond debate," even as the country reinforces one of the most effective international scientific collaborations ever undertaken.

Once in orbit, Discovery will scan itself for any launch damage with a new extendable sensing boom built in Canada. Most of its cargo will be stowed in a 21-foot-long carrying case called Raffaello, built by the Italian Space Agency. The mission's lead spacewalker is astronaut Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. And the shuttle will be greeted by space station commander Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut.

Finally, for all of the participants and, perhaps, for all of humankind, Discovery will resume the quest to fulfill what mission commander Eileen Collins calls "my most exciting dream -- that in my lifetime I could see people walking on Mars."


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