Shuttle Astronauts Confident on Safety

The pilot of the space shuttle Discovery said Tuesday the astronauts believe shuttle flights today are a little less risky and they're confident in their safe return on Monday.

In fact, astronaut Mark Kelly said his twin brother Scott - who's also an astronaut - told him in a phone call to space, "We're back, baby!"

The confidence comes from the shuttle's clean bill of health after in-space inspections showed virtually no damage to the spacecraft from falling external tank foam, unlike last year's mission when foam insulation shed during launch.

"We've made some pretty big strides to keep foam from shedding from the tank," Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We can see all of those areas of interest," Kelly said via satellite from the international space station where Discovery is docked. "It was certainly not a surprise. It was expected."

The astronauts also got a call from President Bush on Tuesday with an invitation to visit the White House.

"He said that the astronauts represent the best of service and exploration and thanked them for what they're doing," said spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Discovery is only the second space shuttle flight since 2003's Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts. Hundreds of images of Discovery's protective insulating skin have been taken to make sure there's not a repeat of that tragedy. Foam from Columbia's external tank struck its wing, causing a breach that allowed fiery gases to enter during descent.

The space shuttle fleet was grounded for more than two years after the Columbia disaster, and then again last year after a 1-pound piece of foam fell off Discovery's external tank during the first return-to-flight mission.

NASA had asked for extra images of six areas on Discovery before clearing them as safe last weekend, and the space agency said no pieces of dangerous foam fell off during a critical period when it could damage the shuttle, an encouraging sign for future shuttle flights.

The six astronauts of Discovery, along with the three space station crew members, planned to spend most of Tuesday packing up science experiments, trash and unneeded equipment to take back to Earth on Monday. They awoke to a recording of Smash Mouth's "All Star" chosen by the family of astronaut Lisa Nowak.

Astronauts Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum also prepared for their third and final spacewalk, which included possibly using duct tape to fix a safety-jet backpack that came loose from Sellers while he repaired the international space station during a spacewalk Monday.

"Right now, is there some kind of tape fix that you guys could think about that would be helpful?" Sellers asked Mission Control Tuesday morning.

Fossum had to tether the device to Sellers to keep it from flying away.

The jet backpack, nicknamed SAFER, is worn by every astronaut during a spacewalk. It allows an astronaut to propel himself or herself to safety in an emergency, for instance if a tether or foot restraint holding the astronaut in place breaks. Sellers was never in danger of losing it, NASA officials said.

The spacewalkers hope they can use Kapton tape to hold the backpack latches in place when they make their next spacewalk on Wednesday. The tape is like duct tape but slippery and able to withstand both frigid cold and fiery hot temperatures.

"We're not called upon to get into any tight quarters, as far as we know yet, so I think with a little bit of tape, and the fact that we're doing it out in the open most of the time, means we're good to go," Sellers told The Associated Press via satellite Tuesday.

For Wednesday's spacewalk, the astronauts planned to test whether a sealant can be used to repair damaged pieces of the space shuttle's thermal protection system. The technique was developed after the Columbia accident.

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On the Net:

NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov


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