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Friday, August 17, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NASA decides shuttle doesn't need repairs

The Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA decided Thursday that no repairs are needed for a deep gouge in Endeavour's belly and that the space shuttle is safe to fly home.

Mission Control notified the seven shuttle astronauts of the decision right before they went to sleep, putting an end to a week of engineering analyses and anxious uncertainty — both in orbit and on Earth.

Endeavour's relieved commander, Scott Kelly, thanked everyone on the ground for their hard work. Mission Control replied, "It's great we finally have a decision and we can press forward."

After meeting for five hours, mission managers opted Thursday night against any risky spacewalk repairs based on the overwhelming — but not unanimous — recommendations of hundreds of engineers. The massive amount of data indicated Endeavour would suffer no serious structural damage during next week's re-entry.

Their worry was not that Endeavour might be destroyed and its seven astronauts killed in a replay of the Columbia disaster; the gouge is too small to be catastrophic. They were concerned that the heat of re-entry could weaken the shuttle's aluminum frame at the damaged spot and result in lengthy postflight repairs.

The chairman of the mission management team, John Shannon, said Johnson Space Center's engineering group in Houston wanted to proceed with the repairs. But everyone else, including safety officials, voted to skip them.

"I am 100 percent comfortable that the work that has been done has accurately characterized it [the damage] and that we will have a very successful re-entry," Shannon said.

"I am also 100 percent confident that if we would have gotten a different answer and found out that this was something that was going to endanger the lives of the crew, that we had the capability on board to go and repair it and then have a successful entry," he said.

The astronauts had spent much of the day running through the never-before-attempted repair methods, just in case they were ordered up.

Endeavour's bottom thermal shielding was pierced by a piece of debris that broke off the external fuel tank shortly after liftoff last week. The debris, either foam insulation, ice or a combination of both, weighed just one-third of an ounce but packed enough punch to carve out a 3 ½-inch-long, 2-inch-wide gouge and dig all the way through the thermal tiles. Left exposed was a narrow 1-inch strip of feltlike fabric, the last barrier before the shuttle's aluminum structure.

The only way to fix the gouge would have been to send a pair of spacewalking astronauts out with black paint and caulk-like goo, and maneuver them beneath the shuttle on the end of a 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom, with few if any close-up camera views.

The spacewalk would have so risky that managers did not want to attempt it unless absolutely necessary. Wednesday's spacewalk, cut short by an astronaut's ripped glove, showed how hazardous even a routine spacewalk can be.

In a poignant reminder of NASA's other shuttle accident, the 1986 Challenger launch explosion, astronaut Barbara Morgan answered questions from youngsters gathered at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va. Morgan was the backup to teacher Christa McAuliffe on Challenger.

The moderator was June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger's commander and the founding chairwoman of the Challenger center's board. "Barb, we have been standing by waiting for your signal from space for 21 years," she said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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