- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2007

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — With the last bit of shuttle imagery analyzed, NASA cleared Endeavour yesterday for its return to Earth, bringing the spaceship home a day early because of hurricane worries that later evaporated.

Endeavour is aiming for a touchdown early this afternoon, as long as the crosswind at the landing strip isn’t too strong, the main weather concern.

“Hopefully, we’ll have acceptable weather and it will be a really good day,” mission commander Scott Kelly radioed from orbit.

“I’ve got a good feeling,” Mission Control replied.

Mission managers gave the go-ahead after engineers finished evaluating the latest laser images of the shuttle’s wings and nose and concluded there were no holes or cracks from micrometeorites or space junk. The astronauts inspected the especially vulnerable areas Sunday, after undocking from the International Space Station.

NASA reiterated yesterday that the unrepaired gouge in Endeavour’s belly will pose no danger to the shuttle or its seven astronauts during the hourlong descent. A week of thermal analyses and tests also indicated that no lengthy postflight repairs should be required either, said flight director Steve Stich.

Mr. Stich noted, however, that re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere is always risky, just like a launch, and he will not relax until the shuttle is on the runway and the astronauts are safely out.

A piece of foam insulation or ice from a bracket on the external fuel tank broke off at liftoff Aug. 8, fell onto a strut lower on the tank, then bounced into Endeavour and gashed it. The same brackets have shed debris in previous launches, but it wasn’t until Endeavour’s flight that it caused noticeable damage.

NASA does not plan to launch another space shuttle until the problem is solved. Engineers met yesterday to discuss possible remedies. A permanent solution, replacing the aluminum alloy brackets with titanium ones requiring less insulating foam, won’t be ready until spring. That leaves three missions at risk, including the next one, scheduled for October.

Endeavour’s two-week mission wasn’t supposed to end until tomorrow, but over the weekend mission managers decided to cut its space station visit short. At the time, it was uncertain whether Hurricane Dean would threaten Houston, home to Mission Control.

The forecast yesterday afternoon had Houston out of harm’s way. But with the shuttle astronauts already packed up, NASA held to its landing plan for today.

During a question-and-answer session with Canadian children, Cmdr. Kelly explained that the hurricane wasn’t affecting landing preparations in orbit. “Even though we undocked a day early,” he said, “we might not have to get home on Tuesday as urgently as we did before.”

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