Countdown For Discovery Launch Enters Final Hours

It's down to a final few hours of waiting for NASA to return to space travel with the launch of the space shuttle Discovery on track for this afternoon. The shuttle and its seven-person crew are scheduled to lift off this afternoon with a redesigned external fuel tank and nearly 50 other improvements made in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy over East Texas.

Engineers had to deal with an embarrassing mishap yesterday -- a plastic cover on one of the shuttle's cockpit windows fell more than 60 feet to hit the fuselage. Technicians replaced an aluminum panel that was damaged. The weather remains the only concern, with thunderstorms in the forecast. NASA puts the chances of acceptable weather at launch time at 60 percent.

"Everything looks good," Discovery vehicle manager Stephanie Stilson told reporters. "This is a minor repair for us."

Today's scheduled launch will be the first mission for the shuttle program since the Columbia disaster in February 2003 that killed all seven astronauts aboard. Technicians began fueling Discovery this morning after a brief delay during which engineers worked on a ground support heater -- a task that was not expected to push back Discovery's launch time of 2:51 p.m. CDT.

NASA officials will inspect the spacecraft for possible ice formations before Discovery crewmembers board for their journey to the International Space Station.