- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Flight controllers and others at NASA struggled to push away thoughts of Columbia’s catastrophic return as Discovery aimed for a landing before dawn today, the first for a shuttle since the 2003 disaster.

The Mission Control team in charge of guiding Discovery and its crew of seven safely back to Earth was focused on that sole objective and was trying not to dwell on that awful morning when Columbia shattered in the sky just 16 minutes from home and seven astronauts were killed.

“We’re looking forward; we’re not looking back,” flight director LeRoy Cain said yesterday with less than 24 hours to go before touchdown.

So were Discovery’s seven astronauts.

“I have had a lot of thoughts about Columbia, and I will have thoughts after the landing,” commander Eileen Collins said yesterday. But as for today, “We’re all going to be very focused … on the job at hand.”

“It’s time to come home,” she said, “and keep working on getting the shuttle better and ready to fly in the future.”

After 13 days in orbit, Discovery was set to begin its descent at 3:40 a.m. and land at 4:47 a.m.

Good weather was forecast for what was to be an uncommon, less-preferred landing in darkness, something unavoidable given Discovery’s launch time on July 26. Of the previous 111 shuttle touchdowns, 19 have occurred in the dark.

Discovery’s 13-day flight to the International Space Station and back may be the last one for a long while. NASA grounded the shuttle fleet after a slab of insulating foam broke off Discovery’s external fuel tank during liftoff — the very problem that doomed Columbia and was supposed to have been corrected.

Unlike Columbia, which was punched in the wing, Discovery was not hit by the big chunk of foam, but other smaller pieces struck. No severe damage was noted by the new wing sensors, laser-tipped inspection boom or extensive photography, giving NASA the confidence to clear the spacecraft for the fiery, inherently dangerous ride home.

A torn thermal blanket under a cockpit window, most likely ripped by launch debris, was judged good enough for re-entry and left alone.

Mr. Cain said the unprecedented load of data posed “somewhat of a challenge” because it gave him more things to consider for the one-hour descent.

“But I would tell you, I think as most of us would tell you, that I’d rather have more data because it makes me better prepared,” he said. “I don’t think, honestly, that it can add to my anxiety or list of things that I’ll worry about or not worry about. The buffers pretty much fall either way.”

Never before have astronauts or flight controllers known so much about the condition of a returning shuttle.

“That’s a fantastic step forward,” astronaut Stephen Robinson said from orbit yesterday. “The next step is to be able to repair any damage we happen to have found. Our shuttle didn’t require any repair, just a tiny little dental flossing of plucking a couple of gap fillers out.”

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