Space shuttle set for early return to Earth

By New Scientist Space and Reuters Space shuttle Endeavour is set to return to Earth on Tuesday after a flight to the International Space Station was cut short by Hurricane Dean and marred by a debris problem at launch. NASA said the shuttle and its crew of seven would land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1232 EDT (1732 BST) if weather permits. Forecasts predict possible rain, which can damage Endeavour’s delicate heat shield, but flight director Steve Stich said he was optimistic about landing. “For this time of year, it’s pretty good,” he said of the forecast. NASA had planned to land Endeavour on Wednesday, but decided to bring it back a day early out of concern that Hurricane Dean, then roaring through the Caribbean Sea, could turn toward Texas and disrupt operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Category Five storm neared Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Monday with 256 kilometre per hour (160 mile per hour) winds. Fortunately, it is not now expected to hit Texas. The shuttle is coming home with a small gash in its belly caused by a chunk of insulation foam that flew off the fuel tank when the shuttle launched on 8 August. NASA decided the 8-centimetre (3-inch) gouge would not endanger the ship during its fiery return to Earth and did not need repair. “I can assure you Endeavour is not going to suffer any catastrophic damage,” Stich said. But space shuttle programme director Wayne Hale said NASA would once again have to look at the foam-strike problem that caused the Colombia disaster in 2003. The space agency has made changes to reduce foam loss, but he said it will never be completely eliminated because of inherent design problems in the ageing shuttles. “We will never have a launch with zero risk,” Hale said. The shuttle Columbia broke apart before landing because of wing heat shield damage caused by a foam strike as it launched. The seven astronauts on board were killed. The shuttle programme was grounded for over 2 years while NASA reviewed and revised its safety procedures. On 10 August, Endeavour arrived at the space station. Its astronauts then installed a 2-tonne metal beam on the $100-billion outpost, which is now 60% complete. The agency hopes to finish the 15-nation project before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. The space shuttle – learn more in our continuously updated special report. More on these topics:
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