July 1 Set As Date For Shuttle Launch

The announcement came Saturday after a two-day Flight Readiness Review at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Discovery is undergoing final preparations for launch.

Commanding the 13-day mission will be Air Force Col. Steve Lindsey, who arrived Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center with the other six crew members for several days of dress rehearsals.

The shuttle will deliver supplies to the international space station and drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, who will join the Expedition 13 crew already there.

Two astronauts, Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum, will conduct two space walks to test a new shuttle robotic arm and to repair a damaged piece of equipment outside the ISS. If time permits, they may do a third space walk to test repair techniques on the shuttle's thermal protection system.

NASA's decision to resume shuttle flights this summer is not without controversy.

On NASA's return-to-flight mission last summer, the first since the Columbia disaster in 2003, a one-pound piece of foam broke loose from the Shuttle Discovery's external tank, just missing the orbiter.

A 1.6-pound piece of insulating foam that broke loose from Columbia's external tank during its launch damaged the wing, an accident investigation board concluded. The event led to the destruction of the spacecraft when superheated gases entered the damaged wing. All seven astronauts aboard died.

After the close call with Discovery last summer, NASA managers decided to remove the Protuberance Air Load ramp, from which the foam broke loose. The ramp, a 40-pound wedge of insulation, is used to smooth airflow over pressurization lines and a cable tray along the side of the tank.

Still of concern, however, are foam structures on the tank known as ice-frost ramps, which cover the brackets that hold in place the cable tray and pressurization lines formerly shielded by the PAL ramp.

Small pieces of foam have come off the ice-frost ramps on previous flights. And in a worst-case scenario, small pieces of foam debris from the ice-frost ramps could cause critical damage to the orbiter, according to wind tunnel test results conducted by NASA this spring. Even so, NASA officials have put off structure modifications until after the launch.