NASA official opposes launch, but says crew not in danger

NASA's top safety officer on Wednesday said he won't appeal a decision to clear shuttle Discovery for liftoff next week, even though he has nagging concerns about the spaceship's safety.

On Saturday, following a two-day flight review, NASA safety chief Bryan O'Connor and chief engineer Chris Scolese declined to endorse the U.S. space agency's certification that Discovery was ready for launch.

At issue is whether additional modifications to the shuttle's external fuel tank were necessary before flights resume. NASA redesigned the tank after the 2003 Columbia disaster, and then again after the first-post Columbia mission last July. Both times large pieces of insulating foam fell off the tank.

Columbia was hit and damaged by the falling debris, triggering the ship's breakup as it flew through the atmosphere for landing. Seven astronauts died in the accident, reports Scotsman.

According to Houston Chronicle, though they oppose NASA's plans for a July 1 launching of the shuttle Discovery, the space agency's top safety and engineering officers said Wednesday they believe the mission can unfold without harm to the seven astronauts.

The 12-day mission to the international space station will mark NASA's second attempt to overcome the foam launch debris hazard blamed for the 2003 Columbia accident.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin on Saturday authorized Discovery's liftoff, following a wide-ranging, two-day review of the preparations at the Kennedy Space Center. Bryan O'Connor, the agency's top safety officer, and Chris Scolese, the chief engineer, urged the flight readiness review board to wait until experts could reduce the hazard posed by insulating foam that surrounds 37 metal brackets on the outside of the shuttle's fuel tank.

After posing their objections to Griffin, they were able to overcome their opposition because the space station could serve as a "safe haven" where the Discovery crew could wait for a rescue if the ship was damaged by falling foam during the launch, the two officials told a telephone news briefing.

"I believe (the issue) was elevated to the right authority (Griffin)," said O'Connor, a former astronaut. "I was not going to lie down in the flame trench or throw my (NASA) badge down."