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11/8/2010
02:53 PM
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Shuttle Discovery Grounded For Safety Reasons

NASA wants more time to inspect a hydrogen leak and foam cracks on the spacecraft's external fuel tank.

NASA officials on Monday said the final flight of space shuttle Discovery has been pushed back at least three weeks to give engineers more time to diagnose and repair a potentially dangerous hydrogen leak. The delay will also give them a better look at a foam crack on part of the external fuel tank.

Space Shuttle Discovery
(click image for larger view)
Space Shuttle Discovery

Discovery will now make its last voyage into space no earlier than Nov. 30.

"We always place safety first," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for Space Operations, in a statement.

"It is essential we repair this hardware before we fly the mission, and we will take the time to properly understand and fix the failure before we launch," said Gerstenmaier.

NASA crews discovered the hydrogen leak in a component known as the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate, which is part of a system that carries excess hydrogen safely away from Discovery's external fuel tank.

Discovery was originally scheduled to launch and then dock with the International Space Station last week, but the hydrogen leak, weather delays, and a balky helium system combined to keep the craft on the launch pad at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

Discovery entered service in 1984, and is one of three remaining shuttles of the six originally built. Atlantis and Endeavour remain in service, while Challenger and Columbia were lost in accidents that claimed the lives of their crewmembers. The first shuttle, Enterprise, was a test vehicle that was retired shortly after its initial series of suborbital flights in 1977.

The shuttle program is expected to end in February when Endeavour takes to the skies for the final time. President Obama earlier this year ordered NASA to turn over low-orbit flights to private contractors and focus more on deep space missions and research.

Critics of the plan claim it will cost jobs along Florida's Spacecoast and in other states that support the shuttle program. They also say it could leave the U.S. lagging behind Russia and China in the space race.

Discovery will carry a six-member, all-U.S. crew on its final voyage, officially known as STS-133. The team is led by Commander Steve Lindsey, 50, of Temple City, Calif., and pilot Eric Boe, 45, of Atlanta. Also on board will be mission specialists Alvin Drew, 47, of Washington, D.C., Tim Kopra, 47, of Austin, Texas, Michael Barratt, 51, of Camas, Wash., and Nicole Stott, 47, of Clearwater, Fla.

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