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NASA sets shuttle launch for July 1; dissent reported

Fuel tank design is seen as an issue

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA managers yesterday picked July 1 to launch the first space shuttle flight in almost a year, despite recommendations against a liftoff attempt by the space agency's chief engineer and several of its safety officers.

The decision to launch the shuttle, Discovery, on a trip to the international space station was made after two days of meetings by NASA's leading managers and engineers at the Kennedy Space Center near here.

In a poll of top managers, representatives from NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance and the Office of the Chief Engineer recommended against flying until further design changes are made to the external fuel tank.

Despite their recommendations, the dissenting managers did not object to making a launch, NASA officials said. The ultimate decision was made by the NASA administrator, Michael Griffin.

``The administrator . . . has the obligation to decide. That's what I do," Griffin said. ``Our staff offices . . . have the right, have the obligation, have the utter necessity, to tell us exactly what they think. But all of that is advice."

Much of the most contentious debate was focused on whether the shuttle's external tank should undergo further changes in 34 areas called ice-frost ramps.

About 35 pounds of foam have been removed from an area of the tank where a one-pound piece fell off during the launch last July of Discovery. NASA described it as the biggest aerodynamic change ever to the launch system.

Representatives from NASA's safety and chief engineer offices said at the meeting that the shuttle should not fly until the ice-frost ramps are redesigned.

A large piece of foam from the external tank struck a wing of Columbia during its launch in 2003, pushing fiery gases into the shuttle and killing the seven-member crew during descent.

Griffin said the decision to fly would pose no risk to Discovery's planned seven astronauts, because NASA has devised new inspection and repair techniques to the shuttle itself.

In addition, as a last resort, the astronauts could stay at the international space station until a rescue shuttle arrives.

The pieces that have come off the ice-frost ramps in the past have been small, and NASA plans to redesign the ice-frost ramps in the future, Griffin said. NASA leaders also have said the shuttle should fly with only one major modification to the tank at a time.

``I think it is acceptable for a number of reasons to go fly for a limited number of flights until we come up with a new design," said Wayne Hale, the shuttle program manager.

NASA's shuttles are scheduled to be grounded in 2010, once the space station is constructed. Postponing the launch past July might cause pressure for completing the station, Griffin said.

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