- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — Space shuttle Discovery’s astronauts got some happy news yesterday: It’s safe to fly home.

Mission Control informed the crew of six that the ship’s thermal shielding is “100 percent cleared for entry” in another week.

“Boy, that is great news, that’s fantastic,” shuttle commander Steve Lindsey said. “And to get all that done by the end of flight day six … is just amazing.

“Everyone here around the room, as you can imagine, is most happy,” Mission Control replied.

Only one heat-shield issue remained going into the late-afternoon mission management meeting — a 2-inch-long piece of fabric filler sticking out about an inch from thermal tiles on Discovery’s belly. Engineers determined that it wasn’t necessary to have an astronaut pluck the strip out during a spacewalk and that it posed no concern for the spaceship’s return to Earth on July 17. So managers gave the heat shield an official clean bill of health.

Officials had already decided that several other nicks and spots — ranging from bird droppings to frayed fabric — were no big deal.

Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said the healthy shuttle — and the crew’s accomplishments in orbit so far — pave the way for the next mission in less than two 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 easy day yesterday, said pilot Mark Kelly. They were scheduled to work only 15 hours, instead of 16 hours.

“Today has been a relatively light day compared to the others,” Mr. Kelly said at the press conference. Those first five days of the mission were so busy that “we had to take our meals on the run,” Mr. Lindsey said.

The second spacewalk, which was to begin at 8:13 a.m. today, is much like past International Space Station repair spacewalks. The bulk of the scheduled 6-hour spacewalk will concentrate on finishing repairs on the station’s railcar-like mobile transporter. This is a crucial piece of the station that slides back and forth, helping in the expansion of the outpost.

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