- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Inspectors found a 5-inch-long crack in the foam insulation covering the shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank, and NASA managers were deciding today whether to call off the scheduled Fourth of July launch.

The crack was spotted during an overnight inspection. NASA had scrubbed launch plans Saturday and Sunday because of poor weather and had removed fuel from the tank.

The inspectors found the crack, which was an eighth of an inch deep, in the foam on a bracket near the top of the external fuel tank.

“We don’t know if it’s a problem or not,” NASA spokesman George Diller said.

Officials were meeting to determine whether the crack could be fixed for a liftoff tomorrow.

If NASA decides to go ahead with the launch tomorrow, it would be the first manned launch by the United States on the nation’s birthday, and only the second liftoff of a space shuttle since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Concerns about cracks in the fuel tank’s foam insulation have dogged the program since Columbia exploded over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. A chunk of flyaway foam damaged Columbia’s wing during liftoff, allowing superheated gas to penetrate the shuttle when it re-entered the atmosphere.

NASA tried to fix the problem before trying another launch, but more foam broke off Discovery’s redesigned tank last July, barely missing the shuttle.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin decided the shuttle should go into orbit despite the concerns of two top agency managers who wanted additional repairs to the foam insulation.

The mission for Discovery’s crew this time is to test shuttle-inspection techniques, deliver supplies to the international space station and drop off German astronaut Thomas Reiter for a six-month stay.

The weather forecast for a liftoff tomorrow was better than it was yesterday or today, with a 40 percent chance that storms at launch time would prevent liftoff, said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Kaleb Nordgren, a shuttle weather forecaster. NASA planned to make launch attempts tomorrow and on Wednesday if necessary.


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