Next space shuttle flight could come in September

If engineers have “eureka moment” in solving foam insulation issue, Atlantis could launch on Sept. 22.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston - NASA has circled Sept. 22 on its calendar as the earliest date for the second installment of its space shuttle return to flight effort.

Senior officials said the space shuttle Atlantis can be ready for launch late next month, if engineers trying to understand foam-shedding problems with the shuttle fuel tank have what NASA Administrator Michael Griffin called a "eureka moment" sometime next week.

"We're not going to give up on that [date] until we run out of time to make it," Griffin said in a Friday news conference here on Day 11 of the first shuttle mission in 30 months.

The shuttle and seven astronauts flew to the space station to deliver supplies and make repairs. They ended up doing an emergency spacewalk to pluck protruding filler material from the shuttle's heat shield to ensure their own safety when Discovery returns to Earth on Monday.

Griffin rejected a suggestion that the Discovery mission has been fraught with problems. "People who think that this has been a horribly troubled flight, not only for them is the glass not half full, there is no glass," he said.

Griffin argued that the 13-day mission has been a resounding success, despite one big glitch with foam insulation on Discovery's fuel tank. A one-pound chunk of foam broke away from the tank during liftoff July 26, defying engineers who invested two years in design changes to stop it.

A chunk of foam poked a hole in the shuttle Columbia's heat shield and brought it down over Texas in February 2003. Discovery suffered no apparent damage, but NASA launched an investigation and said shuttles will not fly again until the problem is fixed.

Griffin said he is not concerned for the astronauts' safety during the re-entry phase of Discovery's landing, which is scheduled for 4:46 a.m. EDT Monday.

NEXT STORY: Where's The Love?