Shuttle Endeavour to land despite bad weather

No matter how many reassuring statements NASA makes, we're not going to relax until the seven-person crew of the space shuttle Endeavour lands safely tomorrow.

Engineers insist there is no danger of a catastrophe from that three-inch gouge in the heat shield that protects Endeavour's belly during its fiery descent to Earth.

NASA studied the gouge for a week before deciding not to patch it in orbit. The experts reasoned that the risk of creating a worse problem through a mishap during repair outweighed the risk of heat damaging the structure of the shuttle beneath the gouge.

The gouge was created during launch when the fragile shield tile material was hit by a piece of debris, likely insulation foam, ice or both, that broke off the bracket that links the shuttle with its huge external fuel tank.

In 2003, it was a piece of foam insulation that broke away and hit the left wing of the shuttle Columbia during launch. NASA engineers decided it posed no risk. They didn't realize it had damaged the wing's front edge. On Feb. 1, 2003 , that damage let in superhot gases during re-entry, melting key components. Columbia went out of control 39 miles above Texas , tumbling and breaking apart at about 13,000 mph in a flaming shower of pieces that spread across the sky like a shooting star. The seven astronauts died, only 16 minutes short of landing, The Morning Journal reports.

Hurricane Dean seems to be less of a threat to mission control at Johnson Space Center in Houston , but Endeavour will still prepare for a Tuesday landing at Kennedy Space Center.

Florida weather looks favorable for a Tuesday landing, deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said. Only a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms is predicted, as the atmosphere's energy focuses on Hurricane Dean.

Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station on Sunday after a mission during which its crew installed a truss, replaced a gyroscope and performed many routine construction tasks.

"We couldn't have gotten everything we accomplished without you guys," Commander Scott Kelly told the space station's three-man crew. "We look forward to seeing you back on planet Earth," Florida Today reports.

Source: Agencies

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