Shuttle Discovery cleared for Feb. 24 launch

CBS News

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--NASA managers Friday cleared the shuttle Discovery for launch next Thursday on a long-delayed space station resupply mission after an exhaustive review of ground processing and unprecedented external tank repairs to fix and prevent potentially dangerous cracks in the ship's external tank like those that derailed a launch try last November.

The shuttle Discovery atop pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: NASA)
Discovery's six-member crew -- commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and spacewalkers Stephen Bowen and Alvin Drew -- plans to fly to the Kennedy Space Center Sunday afternoon for the start of the ship's countdown at 3 p.m. EST (GMT-5) Monday.

If all goes well, Discovery will blast off on its 39th and final mission at 4:50:24 p.m. Thursday, more than three-and-a-half months after the ship was grounded to resolve the external tank crack problem.

Along with fixing the tank, NASA also had to revise the mission flight plan to reflect ongoing crew rotations on the space station, the arrival of European and Japanese cargo ships and to train Bowen to replace astronaut Timothy Kopra, the mission's lead spacewalker, after he was injured in a bicycle accident last month near his home in Houston.

"We had a very thorough review today," said Bill Gerstenmaier, director of space operations at NASA headquarters. "The teams have done a great job, I think we're ready to go next week."

He praised the NASA and contractor engineers and technicians who did the troubleshooting, analysis and repairs of Discovery's tank, one of the most challenging examples of shuttle surgery ever attempted so close to launch. Many members of the repair team were called in from Lockheed Martin's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans where the giant tank was built. With only three more shuttle flights planned, the production line has been shut down.

"They did a phenomenal job of doing this testing and pulling the work together," Gerstenmaier said. "I couldn't be prouder of what they've done. ... A lot of these folks, some of them in the tank world, were laid off, they were already in other jobs and we called them back to do some of this work. ... There was no question about their dedication. They really want to see this vehicle fly."

The primary goals of the 133rd shuttle mission are to deliver critical spare parts, supplies and a final U.S. module to the International Space Station.

Assuming an on-time launch, Lindsey will guide Discovery to a docking at the station's forward port around 2:16 p.m. on Feb. 26. Two spacewalks are planned, on Feb. 28 and March 2, with attachment of the new storage module in between the EVAs on March 1. Discovery would undock from the station around 7:44 a.m. on March 5 and land back at the Kennedy Space Center around 12:44 p.m. on March 7.

But NASA managers and their Russian counterparts are considering a plan to add a day to Discovery's mission so a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, carrying station commander Scott Kelly, Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka, could undock, move away and capture photographs and video of the completed station with the shuttle attached, along with a full complement of Russian, European and Japanese cargo craft.

Assuming the fly-around is approved -- and no decisions are expected until after Discovery reaches the space station -- flight planners would insert a new flight day 10 into the crew's March 5 timeline for the Soyuz photo op. Discovery would undock the next day and land in Florida around 11:35 a.m. on March 8.

NASA originally hoped to launch Discovery on Nov. 1, but the flight was delayed to Nov. 5 by bad weather and technical problems.

The ship was fueled for launch Nov. 5, but the countdown was called off when sensors detected a gaseous hydrogen leak in a quick-disconnect fitting used to attach a vent line to the side of the tank. That problem was quickly resolved, but engineers also discovered cracks near the tops of two adjacent structural rib-like "stringers" near a flange in the external tank that supports the upper liquid oxygen tank. More cracks were found later, after Discovery was returned to NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building for more detailed inspections.

Tracing the manufacturing history of the tank, engineers discovered that most of the original 108 stringers in the "intertank" section that separates the tank's oxygen and hydrogen sections were made using an aluminum-lithium alloy from a lot that was more brittle than usual and more susceptible to temperature-induced fractures when the tank is loaded with super-cold propellants.

That weakness, engineers concluded, along with subtle manufacturing issues, were the most likely causes of the observed cracks.

In the most invasive repair of an external tank ever attempted, engineers installed structural stiffeners, called radius blocks, to better secure the top few inches of 105 stringers to prevent cracks from forming when the tips of the stringers are pulled inward due to the contraction of the liquid oxygen tank.

The goal was twofold: to ensure the tank's overall structural integrity and to prevent cracks that could cause foam insulation to pop off during the climb out of the dense lower atmosphere when debris impacts pose the greatest threat to Discovery's fragile heat shied.

The addition of the radius blocks more evenly distributes stresses in the stringers and reduces the strains on the top few fasteners.

The tank was designed to be structurally "fail safe" even if three adjacent stringers developed cracks. Data from a Dec. 18 fueling test, elaborate laboratory tests and an exhaustive engineering analysis showed the tank would remain structurally sound even if more than three stringers developed cracks greater than four inches in length as long as they were separated by undamaged stringers.

The tank's calculated factor of safety is not precisely known, but it is greater than one in all cases, meaning that even with extensive modifications and stringers that are more brittle than usual, the structure's strength is sufficient for flight.

Testing also showed cracks greater than four inches long were most likely to occur during fueling, when the hardware is "shocked" by extreme low temperatures and that any such fractures likely would cause cracks in the tank's insulation. With the radius block modifications, engineers do not expect such cracks to form. But during Discovery's countdown, cameras will be focused on the liquid oxygen flange area to look for any signs of insulation damage. If any cracks are seen, the countdown will be called off.

"This is probably one of the most difficult technical issues, I think, we've ever faced because the answers were not obvious," Lindsey said in a NASA interview. "It wasn't obvious what was wrong, why it was wrong, or how to fix it, and then you had the additional, if you will, pressure of the shuttle program winding up and we keep slipping and slipping and slipping.

"But to the space shuttle program's credit, they've really done due diligence on this one and really focused on the engineering, following the data, figuring out what was wrong. ... It's just been very impressive to watch them, not get rushed, focus on the data, focus on the engineering. When they didn't understand something, they did a lot of testing. You can write a thousand computer programs, but one test makes all the difference because that tells you what's really going on. So I think they've done a great job with it."