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SCIENCE & SPACE

NASA: Shuttle launch date July 13

Griffin: 'We're currently go for launch'

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NASA's manned space flight program will resume July 13, when the space shuttle Discovery blasts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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(CNN) -- NASA administrator Michael Griffin announced Thursday afternoon the space shuttle's return to flight in July.

"Based on a very thorough and very successful flight readiness review, we're currently go for launch of Discovery on July 13," Griffin said.

Senior NASA officials and shuttle program managers announced the launch date after a two-day "flight readiness review" for Discovery.

NASA has committed to daytime launches for the next two shuttle missions to ensure ideal lighting conditions for the cameras that will scrutinize the shuttle's ascent into orbit.

The launch date comes just days after a panel chartered to oversee NASA's return-to-flight program said the agency failed to fully meet three of the 15 return-to-flight recommendations laid out after the Columbia accident.

But the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group also praised NASA's efforts across the board at a news conference after the panel's final meeting. (Full story)

Despite the critical report Griffin told the House Science Committee he felt confident that Discovery was safe enough to launch during its July 13-31 window.

"We look like we're in pretty good shape. ... Based on what I know now, we're ready to go," Griffin told lawmakers on Tuesday. (Full story)

In late April, Griffin cited concerns about ice falling off the shuttle's external tank during liftoff when he postponed Discovery's launch from May to July.

The shuttle fleet has been grounded since February 1, 2003, when Columbia broke apart over Texas while on landing approach to Florida's Kennedy Space Center, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Seven months later, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that foam insulation broke off during launch from the shuttle's external fuel tank, striking and cracking a panel on the orbiter's wing.

When the shuttle re-entered the Earth's atmosphere 16 days later, searing hot gases seeped into the wing and incinerated the spacecraft.

Columbia astronauts had no way to inspect for and repair any damage to the insulating panels.

Since the Columbia accident, NASA engineers have designed an orbital boom sensor system, which is a second robotic arm that is tipped with cameras and other instruments and mounted in the shuttle's payload bay.

Once in orbit, shuttle astronauts will use the boom to inspect the panels on an orbiter's wings and nose cone for any damage that might have occurred during launch.

But repairing damage to the protection system -- should they find any -- has proved difficult.

Engineers have been developing and testing plugs and crack-repair procedures for the reinforced carbon-carbon panels, as well as tile-repair techniques, for use in the event of damage.

Two such methods will undergo limited testing in orbit by Discovery astronauts, but mission managers acknowledge that their techniques will likely need to be modified before they can be certified.

And most NASA engineers agree that astronauts would never be able to repair a hole the size of the one that doomed Columbia.

Nevertheless, members of the the Stafford-Covey group said that in their estimation NASA has adequately compensated for the lack of an effective repair capability by redesigning the external tank to minimize the size of any foam or ice that might come off and hit the shuttle during liftoff.

The group also has endorsed NASA's "safe haven" plan, which calls for the international space station to be equipped to provide shelter to a shuttle crew in the event an orbiter is irreparably damaged upon liftoff and cannot safely re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

In such an emergency scenario, a shuttle crew would live aboard the station for six to eight weeks while another orbiter is prepared to undertake a rescue mission.

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