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Shuttle Discovery closes in on space station

1/06/2008 - 18:09

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space shuttle Discoveryclosed in on the International Space Station on Sunday todeliver a Japanese research laboratory, a new crew member and arepair kit for the outpost's faulty toilet.

The spaceship was scheduled to arrive at the stationshortly before 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) on Monday. The shuttle andseven astronauts blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center inFlorida on Saturday for a 14-day mission.

The shuttle lost about five pieces of insulating foam fromits fuel tank during lift-off, the same problem that triggeredthe 2003 loss of Columbia in which seven astronauts died.

Analysis of the debris lost during Discovery's launch wasunder way but NASA's top space operations manager toldreporters there was no cause for concern.

"We don't consider those a big deal to us," said spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier.

NASA spent more than $1 billion and two years fixing thetank to minimize debris and added a suite of inspection toolsto check for damage after launch.

Because of the shuttle's design, NASA says it will nevercompletely solve the debris issue but it does expect anyfly-away foam will be too small and occur too late during theclimb to orbit to do any damage.

As the shuttle ascends, there is less atmosphere totransport debris and less energy for it to impact the shuttle.

Because the Japanese laboratory in Discovery's cargo bay isso large, Discovery is flying without an inspection boomroutinely used since Columbia to scour the ships for damage.The last shuttle to visit the space station left its boombehind for the Discovery crew to use and return to Earth.

On Sunday, the Discovery astronauts began a limitedinspection of the ship's wings and nose cap using a camera onthe end of the shuttle's 50-foot robot arm.

The arm is only long enough for the crew to take images ofthe upper surfaces of the wings' leading edges. The boom addsanother 50-feet of manoeuvring room. A more thorough inspectionis planned for later in the mission.

MAIN GOAL

The main goal of NASA's 123rd space shuttle flight is todeliver Japan's lab, named Kibo, which means "hope."

The lab's launch had been on hold for years due to delaysin the construction of the station. NASA now has just two yearsto complete assembly, which began in 1998, in advance of theshuttle fleet's retirement.

Seven construction missions and two resupply flights arepending. The U.S. space agency also plans a final servicingcall to the Hubble Space Telescope in October.

The Discovery crew is also carrying a new pump for thestation's sole toilet, which has been working erratically forthe past week or so. Crew members have been manually flushingthe commode with water four to five times a day to push urinethrough a system that separates liquids from gases.

The solid-waste system is not affected by the problem.

Helping with the toilet repair may be one of the first jobsfor incoming station flight engineer Greg Chamitoff, who isbeing ferried to his new home by the Discovery crew.

He replaces Garrett Reisman who will be returning aboardthe shuttle after a 2 1/2-month mission. Chamitoff is scheduledto remain in orbit for six months.

(Editing by Matthew Bigg and Jackie Frank)


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