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Discovery Marches Toward Launch
A technician installs a Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panel on Discovery. Cocooned in scaffolding and transforming at the hands of hundreds of skilled technicians, the orbiter Discovery is well on its way to being ready for the Space Shuttle Program's Return to Flight.

In the spotlight among the completed work is the reinstallation of the Shuttle's Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) wing panels. The panels hang on the leading edge of the orbiter and protect the wings as they heat up during reentry. As part of the Return to Flight safety requirements and the vehicle's usual overhaul procedure, the panels were removed for inspection and, if need be, replacement.

Image to right: In the Orbiter Processing Facility, technician Mike McCall installs a Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panel on the right wing of Space Shuttle Discovery. Credit: NASA

New to the panel inspection procedure is the use of flash thermography. This technique involves applying a burst of intense and hot light to heat the RCC panel. Technicians then use a heat-detecting, infrared camera to scan the panel for flaws.

Another inspection upgrade is Discovery's switch from a film to a digital External Tank (ET) camera. Located in the rear underbelly of the orbiter, the camera snaps a series of photos as the tank separates from the vehicle. Following ET separation, the pictures will be sent back to Earth for analysis.

Discovery is also receiving a new wing leading edge impact-detection system. Placed inside the wing RCC panels, the detection system consists of a network of sensors to monitor for temperature changes and debris impacts along the wing's leading edge.

Members of the media being briefed on the modifications to Shuttle Discovery. With the hanging of the RCC panels complete and installation of the new wing sensor system underway, Discovery is closer to being ready for its scheduled launch planning window of March 2005. "At this point, I feel very confident and optimistic about a March launch," said NASA Vehicle Manager Stephanie Stilson.

Image to left: Stephanie Stilson, NASA Vehicle Manager, briefs the media on modification and maintenance work being done on Discovery in preparation for Return to Flight. Credit: NASA

However, she was quick to caution that Discovery won't fly until the necessary work is done, no matter how long that takes. "We're not going to fly until we're safe to fly; that's the bottom line," said Stilson.

There's still plenty of work to do before the launch. But if you ask Stilson, "It's a challenge, but this is a team that's used to challenges."

Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center