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Shuttle Gets OK to Fly Home

July 10, 2006|From the Associated Press

HOUSTON — The space shuttle Discovery's astronauts got some happy news Sunday: It's safe to fly home.

Mission Control informed the crew of six that the ship's thermal shielding was "100% cleared for entry" in another week.

"Boy, that is great news, that's fantastic," shuttle commander Steve Lindsey said.

Managers gave the heat shield an official bill of health after engineers determined that a piece of ceramic-coated fabric protruding about an inch from thermal tiles posed no threat to the July 17 return to Earth. The engineers said the gap filler would not have to be removed.

Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said the healthy shuttle -- and the crew's accomplishments in orbit -- paved the way for the next mission in just over 1 1/2 months. That's when assembly will resume at the International Space Station; construction was halted by the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Sandwiched between a daring spacewalk Saturday and a crucial but more routine spacewalk today, Discovery's crew had an easier day Sunday, said pilot Mark Kelly: They were scheduled to work 15 hours, instead of 16.

Saturday's spacewalk, during which astronauts Piers J. Sellers and Michael E. Fossum stood on the end of the shuttle's 100-foot-long robotic arm and extension boom, was intended to prove that emergency repair work could be done from there, the astronauts said.

Today's scheduled 6 1/2 -hour spacewalk, to begin at 5:13 a.m. PDT, was to concentrate on the space station's rail-car-like mobile transporter.

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