NASA shuttle could fly in July after fuel tank improvements


NASA said yesterday that changes to the space shuttle's external fuel tank should prevent large chunks of insulating foam from falling off and hitting the craft, keeping the next mission on schedule for a possible July 1 launch.

"Based on what we know today, there is no reason not to launch on July 1," said program manager N. Wayne Hale Jr., who stressed that the final decision won't be made until engineers certify that the fuel tank is safe and the shuttle passes a flight readiness test.

The launch of Discovery will be the 115th shuttle mission - the second since Columbia broke apart during re-entry in 2001, killing all seven astronauts. An investigation showed that Columbia was damaged during liftoff by a 1.6-pound piece of insulating foam that came off the external fuel tank and struck the craft.

NASA spent several years redesigning the shuttle to make sure that no large pieces of foam would fall off. Yet on the next flight, which took place last summer, a 1-pound piece of foam flaked off the fuel tank and narrowly missed the orbiter.

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