CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Cloudy skies over its Florida landing site on Monday forced NASA to postpone the space shuttle Discovery's return to Earth, prolonging by at least a day the first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Flight directors tried twice to bring Discovery back to Earth after 13 days in orbit but decided the weather was too unpredictable to be sure shuttle commander Eileen Collins would have a clear view of the 3-mile (4.8-km), canal-lined runway at the Kennedy Space Center.
"We regret not getting you guys home today but we feel pretty confident about tomorrow," astronaut Ken Ham radioed from Mission Control in Houston to the Discovery crew.
Collins agreed. "We're going to enjoy another day on orbit and we'll see you on Earth tomorrow," she said.
Barring emergencies, NASA will only land the shuttle if there is at least 5 miles (8 km) of visibility for the approach to the runway and no rain, lightning or thunderstorms within 35 miles (56 km).
NASA has several chances to land the shuttle on Tuesday, including at 5:07 a.m EDT (0907 GMT) or 6:43 a.m. EDT (1043 GMT) in Florida and at 8:12 a.m. EDT (1212 GMT) and 9:47 a.m. EDT (1347 GTM) at the primary backup site in California.
"It's not tomorrow or bust that's for sure," said NASA spokeswoman Laura Rochon in Houston, adding that Discovery had enough fuel and supplies to stay in orbit for a few more days. "We fully expect to land tomorrow or Wednesday."
Collins planned to tweak Discovery's orbit slightly so that if the shuttle had to land in California, it would not fly over Los Angeles. Since the Columbia accident, which showered debris over Texas and Louisiana when the ship broke apart, NASA decided to avoid flying over heavily populated areas.
Shuttle program deputy manager Wayne Hale said NASA also would staff its second backup landing site in New Mexico.
The landing will bring to a close NASA's first shuttle mission since Discovery's sister ship, Columbia, was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003, 16 minutes from landing.
NASA did not know that the ship's wing had been critically damaged during launch by a piece of falling debris. As Columbia plowed through the atmosphere 16 days later for landing, superheated gases blasted into the hole, melting the ship. The seven astronauts on board died.
After the accident, NASA developed on-orbit laser imaging tools and inspection techniques, which were tested during Discovery's flight. They determined that an unplanned spacewalk was needed to make a minor but unprecedented repair to the ship's heat shield.
But the biggest problem on the mission occurred at launch when a chunk of foam almost as large as the one that damaged Columbia flew off Discovery's fuel tank. Columbia's wing damage was caused by a piece of foam insulation that fell off the tank during launch.
In Discovery's case, the foam did not strike the ship, but NASA suspended shuttle flights until the problem was solved.
Discovery spent nine days at the International Space Station on a servicing and resupply mission. In addition to replenishing the station's pantry, water supplies and other gear, the shuttle delivered a new gyroscope to the outpost and revived a second failed device, restoring full service to the steering system for the first time in more than three years.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko in Cape Canaveral, Michael Christie in Miami, Jeff Franks in Houston)
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