Shuttle astronauts ready for mission in May

The crew of NASA's next shuttle mission expressed confidence Friday in the actions taken to protect their spacecraft from dangerous launch debris.

The seven astronauts said they hope the measures will be finished in time to permit a May liftoff of the shuttle Discovery.

With the exception of a single flight last year, the shuttle fleet has been grounded since Columbia's fiery disintegration during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere three years ago. The cause of the tragedy was traced to damage from a breakaway chunk of foam that insulates the shuttle's fuel tank.

NASA engineers believed the problem was solved, but tracking cameras spotted an unexpectedly large piece of foam peeling away from another area of the tank when Discovery lifted off last July. Although there was no impact, NASA suspended shuttle missions to investigate further.

"I feel pretty confident with the decisions we are making, based on engineering analysis and wind-tunnel testing, that we're going in the right direction," said Steve Lindsey, the veteran astronaut who will command Discovery on a mission to the international space station, reports Houston Chronicle.

Lindsey said he had studied wind tunnel testing on the foam and is confident that the recent changes will help. More wind tunnel tests are expected before May.

Lindsey, along with crewmembers Mark Kelly, Mike Fossum, Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson and Piers Sellers, visited the Kennedy Space Center Friday to get "up close and personal" with the space shuttle Discovery for the first time. Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency didn't attend.

During Discovery's 12-day mission to the international space station, crewmembers will go on three spacewalks to make some repairs and test a 50-foot boom to see if it can be used to fix the shuttle's heat shield. The crew also will deliver cargo and supplies for expanding the space station.

Extra time has been carved out during the second and third days of the mission to inspect the shuttle for problems. As it did in the last mission, the spacecraft will be flipped over so space station crewmembers can look for any damage and take photos. The crew has trained for the unexpected, Lindsey said.

"Every flight I've been on, there's something unexpected that happens," Lindsey said. "That's the nature of the business", informs ABC News.

O.Ch.