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July 13 set for first shuttle flight since Columbia disaster

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- After almost 2 1/2 years of frustrating setbacks and delays, NASA yesterday officially set July 13 as the launch date for the first space shuttle flight since the Columbia tragedy.

NASA's administrator, Michael Griffin, announced the news after a two-day space agency review of Discovery's readiness to blast off.

''Based on a very thorough and very successful flight readiness review, we're currently 'go' for launch of Discovery on July 13," Griffin said.

Earlier in the week, an advisory panel concluded NASA did not meet three of the 15 safety recommendations issued by the Columbia accident investigators in 2003. Despite many improvements, the shuttle remains vulnerable to pieces of foam or ice falling off the external fuel tank at liftoff, and the astronauts have no reliable way of fixing damage to their ship's thermal shielding once in orbit, the panel said.

But Griffin and others at NASA said they believe those risks have been reduced to an acceptable level.

Discovery will carry seven astronauts to the international space station. If Discovery suffers irreparable damage en route, the astronauts will move into the station and await a rescue by Atlantis.

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