Inside the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA technicians are readying the space shuttle Discovery, which is expected to be launched next March. Discovery will be the first shuttle to go into orbit since the loss of Columbia in February 2003, and the space agency has redesigned the vehicle to reduce the risk of a similar catastrophe. Yet not all the recommended fixes will be in place at the time of the first flight, limiting the kinds of missions the spacecraft can tackle.
First and foremost, NASA will remove the foam insulation from the metal struts connecting the shuttle to its external fuel tank; a 1.7-pound chunk of this foam fell off during Columbia's launch and punched a hole in the shuttle's wing, allowing superheated gases to flow into the craft on reentry. And in case foam peels off from another part of the external tank, NASA has put sensors in Discovery's wing panels to detect debris impacts and will install a digital camera for viewing the tank after it separates from the shuttle during the ascent.