Discovery may face launch delay

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space shuttle Discovery’s launch later this month should not be delayed to replace three possibly defective heat shields, the shuttle program manager said on Wednesday.

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Wayne Hale will recommend to his NASA bosses that Discovery go ahead with its planned October 23 liftoff to haul a key connection node to the International Space Station so additional science laboratories can be joined to the complex, Kennedy Space Center spokesman Allard Beutel said.

The issue, which was debated well into the evening, will be discussed again at a flight review next Tuesday.

Replacing the three suspect panels would delay Discovery’s launch for weeks. It would miss the three-week launch opportunity that opens October 23 and would likely force NASA to forfeit a fourth planned mission this year.

The next possible launch period begins December 6 -- a slot NASA has been holding for launch of Europe’s Columbus module.

NASA hopes to fly two missions before December 14 when the angle of the sun on the station becomes unsuitable for flights for the rest of the year.

“Our confidence is real high for launch on December 6, but I live in the real world,” said Bernardo Patti, the Columbus project manager for the European Space Agency.

A new method of analysis flagged the carbon composite heat-shield panels as a potential problem, said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy program manager for the space station.

Shireman said older methods had indicated there was no issue with the heat shield.

The panels protect the wings’ leading edges from the fierce heat of atmospheric re-entry.

A hole in shuttle Columbia’s wing panels, caused by a debris strike during liftoff led to the loss of the shuttle and its crew in 2003.