NASA is hoping to launch space shuttle Discovery on its final voyage no earlier than Feb. 24, after months of delays due to cracked fuel tank supports, the space agency announced today (Jan. 11).
Top space shuttle officials announced the new launch target today after reviewing ongoing work to repair Discovery's external fuel tank.
Discovery's final spaceflight has been delayed since early November due to cracked fuel tank support beams that need repair. The new launch target is three days earlier than previous estimates, which cited a launch window that would begin Feb. 27 and close on March 6.
Technicians at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., have been adding metal strips to support beams, known as stringers, in the tank's so-called intertank region. Initially, 32 stringers in the regions that undergo the most stress during the shuttle's launch and ascent were modified, but shuttle program managers have since decided to expand the work to reinforce 95 of the support beams.
Shuttle program managers also met yesterday (Jan. 10) to discuss the status of repairs, and they updated the media in a press conference today.
In the meantime, the astronauts who will fly aboard Discovery on its 39th and final mission will spend the extra time practicing contingency abort scenarios at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the training base for shuttle crews, and the home of the Mission Control Center.
Discovery's last mission will deliver critical spare parts to the station, as well as a storage room module and a humanoid robot to assist the crew of the orbiting laboratory.
The flight is one of the last two scheduled missions as NASA prepares to retire its three-orbiter fleet in 2011. NASA also plans to fly a third flight around mid-year pending final funding authorization from Congress.
In addition to Discovery's flight, NASA's shuttle Endeavour is slated to launch in early April to deliver an astrophysics experiment to the International Space Station. That mission is currently commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife – Rep. Gabrielle Giffords – is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head after a brazen Jan. 8 attack in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and wounded 14 others, including Giffords.
NASA officials said they would not discuss Kelly's plans for the April shuttle mission out of respect for the astronaut, his family and the other victims.
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This article was provided by SPACE.com, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow.