Heat shield safe; Atlantis clear to land

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HOUSTON (AP) — Mission managers yesterday cleared Atlantis to land this week after concluding the space shuttle’s heat shield was safe enough to withstand the intense heat of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

“That’s great news,” Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow radioed to Mission Control after receiving word that Atlantis is cleared to land at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday.

The clearance came a day after astronaut Danny Olivas, during a spacewalk, stapled down a loose thermal blanket that covered an engine pod near the shuttle’s tail. The blanket peeled back during the June 8 launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA has been sensitive about the space shuttles’ heat shields since the Columbia accident killed seven astronauts in 2003. A piece of insulating foam from the shuttle’s external tank came loose during launch, striking Columbia’s wing and allowing fiery gases to penetrate it during re-entry.

Atlantis‘ astronauts plan another inspection of the heat shield after the shuttle undocks from the International Space Station, scheduled for Tuesday.

However, mission managers still might extend the shuttle’s docking at the station by a day so engineers in Moscow and Houston can try to determine why the computer system on the Russian side of the station crashed.

Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov were able to get four of six processors on two computers working again Friday by using a cable to bypass a circuit board.

Yesterday, they began turning back on some crucial systems, including a carbon dioxide scrubber, which had been shut down more than four days earlier. They also planned to use more jumper cables to try to restart the two remaining processors that weren’t working.

“In the last 24 hours, we’ve had a lot of successes,” flight director Holly Ridings said yesterday morning.

The German-made computers control the station’s oxygen supply and maintain its correct position in orbit, allowing it to point its solar panel arrays at the sun to generate electricity and to shift orientation to avoid occasional large debris flying through space.

The computer problem had raised the possibility that the space station’s three-person crew might have to abandon the outpost. NASA officials rejected such a scenario.

“We feel like the computers are stable and back to normal,” said Mike Suffredini, NASA’s manager of the space station program.

Early yesterday, U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams set the record for the longest single spaceflight by any woman, passing astronaut Shannon Lucid’s record of 188 days in orbit.

“It’s just that I’m in the right place at the right time,” Mrs. Williams said when Mission Control congratulated her on the record.

The seven Atlantis astronauts and the three space station crew members planned to spend most of yesterday moving supplies and trash back and forth between the vehicles and preparing for the mission’s fourth spacewalk today.

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