NASA officials announced on Thursday that the first post-Columbia mission of the shuttle was scheduled on July 13 at 19:51 pm GMT. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said that engineers had "greatly reduced the risk" associated with shuttle flights, but that space flight in general remained inherently risky.
NASA has designated this mission and the following one, STS-121, as "test flights" that will be used to confirm safety enhancements put in place after the Columbia accident and perform tests on orbit of tile inspection and repair techniques. Discovery will dock with the International Space Station, delivering 15 tons of supplies and equipment.
"Today's decision is an important milestone in returning the Shuttle to service for the country. Our technical and engineering teams are continuing their in-depth preparations to ensure that Eileen and her crew have a successful mission," says a press-release issued today by NASA.
Earlier in the week, reports AP, an advisory panel concluded that NASA failed to meet three of the 15 safety recommendations issued by the Columbia accident investigators in 2003. Despite many improvements, the shuttle is still vulnerable to pieces of foam or ice falling off the external fuel at liftoff, and the astronauts still have no reliable way of fixing damage to their ship's thermal shielding once in orbit.