KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. -- The only way to really test the safety of the space shuttle's redesigned external fuel tank is to fly, according to Discovery's astronauts, who said yesterday that they were eager for a May liftoff.
"We will lose foam on this flight, just like every other," said commander Steven Lindsey, who could lead a crew into space as early as May or as late as July. "The key is to make sure that the foam we do lose is a small enough size so it can't hurt us if it hits the vehicle."
NASA had redesigned the external fuel tank after a large piece of insulating foam hit the wing of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, sparking the disaster that killed seven astronauts.
Despite the redesign, foam unexpectedly fell off Discovery's fuel tank last July during the first shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster. In response, NASA removed a troublesome section of foam that had protected cables running along the fuel tank.
Lindsey said he had studied wind tunnel testing on the foam and is confident that the recent changes will help. More wind tunnel tests are expected before May.
Six of the seven-member crew arrived at the Kennedy Space Center to check equipment aboard the shuttle, visit the Orbiter Processing Facility and meet with reporters.
Wind-tunnel tests and other analysis must still be done.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.