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Work to repair the support beams on Space Shuttle Discovery's external fuel tanks began at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida Tuesday, as officials at the US space agency kicked off efforts to ensure a February launch date for the vehicle's final mission.
"Technicians… will begin modifications to 34 support beams, called stringers, on space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank today," NASA officials announced on their official website Tuesday. "Crews will fit pieces of metal called radius blocks over the tops of the stringers located at the external tank’s thrust panel area to increase the structural support of the stringers."
The stringer work is expected to take about a week, they said, and also involves scanning the support beams using a device that uses radiation to allow engineers to look below the foam insulation. NASA officials said that they will meet again on Thursday "to determine whether radius block modifications are needed on the remaining stringers."
According to Irene Klotz of Reuters, "The concern is that bits of cracked foam could break off and hit the shuttle during liftoff, such as what happened during the 2003 launch of the shuttle Columbia. The damage caused the shuttle to break apart as it flew through the atmosphere for landing 16 days later, killing seven astronauts aboard."
The oft-delayed Discovery mission, officially known as STS-133, will involve a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver a storage module, spare parts, and scientific equipment. Discovery was initially scheduled to launch on November 1 of last year before various mechanical issues forced the mission to be postponed until at least February 3.
In December, when the most recent delay was confirmed by NASA, CNN.com reported that "the final launch of Endeavour, which is also scheduled to be the last launch of the space shuttle program, is likely to be delayed until April 1, said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations." According to Klotz, however, the scheduled February launch of Atlantis should not be affected.
Image Caption: Shuttle Discovery inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux