The space shuttle Discovery is rolled back into NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida early Wednesday, in preparation for safety tests.
After sitting on its launch pad for three months and weathering repeated delays due to weather and fuel-tank problems, the space shuttle Discovery was rolled back to NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building overnight for an intensive round of structural tests.
Mission managers want to make absolutely certain that all the flaws in Discovery’s external fuel tank have been fixed. Cracks in the tank were detected while it was being loaded with liquid hydrogen and oxygen for a Nov. 5 launch attempt. Since then, engineers have beefed up two of the tank’s support beams, known as stringers, and made other repairs as well.
The engineers found no other problems while Discovery was sitting on Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and a tanking test went smoothly last Friday. But NASA wants to run X-ray scans and additional tests that required bringing the shuttle back inside its 52-story assembly building. Discovery began the slow, 3.4-mile trip atop its crawler-transporter on Tuesday night, and was locked down inside the building eight hours later.
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If Discovery is given the all-clear, the shuttle would be brought back out to the pad for a scheduled Feb. 3 launch to the International Space Station. The resupply mission would mark the first of three final shuttle flights scheduled during 2011. After its flight, Discovery is due to be retired and will likely be sent to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
How is the post-shuttle era shaping up? Here’s an update from NBC News’ Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree:
> “Florida’s senior senator, Bill Nelson, tells NBC News that both houses of Congress have continued NASA’s budget at current levels, $18.75 billion. Nelson says ‘by law’ NASA is to spend its budget developing a new heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft to replace the shuttles while developing commercial rockets and spacecraft to service the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. The new heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft will keep much of America’s veteran launch team in place and will fly astronauts to asteroids and such, and then, when the know-how is developed, to deep space — Mars and other distant places in our solar system.”
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