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Discovery's crew ready for launch

CAPE CANAVERAL - Discovery's seven astronauts, wearing their pumpkin-orange flight suits, settled into the shuttle this morning for the first blastoff since the Columbia accident of February 2003.

Liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center is set for 10:39 a.m. EDT, though the window will be open from 10:34 a.m. through 10:44 a.m. No mechanical glitches appeared and the weather was cooperating.

The 12-day mission will deliver supplies to the International Space Station and test post-Columbia safety equipment.

As he prepared to board Discovery, astronaut Soichi Noguchi waved with glee and held a sign that said, ''Out to Launch.'' Astronaut Charlie Camarda held a message for his four children: ``Be Good for Mom.''

Others performed ''loud and clear'' communications checks with Launch Control.

Glowing in the morning sunshine, Discovery stood fueled and ready on Launch Pad 39B.

An ongoing series of tests detected no reoccurrence of the fuel gauge problem that forced NASA to scrub the first launch attempt on July 13.

''Everything looks good for launch today,'' said NASA launch commentator George Diller. ``No issues at work. Weather looks good.''

Forecasters predicted a 90 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time.Thousands of spectators gathered at viewing sites around the space center. Laura Bush and other dignitaries were expected to attend.

The blastoff is unlikely to be visible from South Florida, but anyone willing to try should look northward at launch time.

At 5 a.m. already awake for hours, the astronauts -- dressed in colorful Hawaiian-style shirts -- gathered for the traditional cutting of the pre-launch frosted cake. As he did before the first launch attempt, crew member Stephen Robinson calmly strummed an acoustic guitar.

''A happy tone for our launch today,'' Diller said.

About 90 minutes later, the crew sat in the suit-up room as technicians helped them adjust their flight uniforms.

Led by commander Eileen Collins, they arrived at the launch pad shortly after 7 a.m., a little ahead of schedule. In addition to Collins, Camarda, Noguchi and Robinson, also in the crew are pilot Jim Kelly and mission specialists Wendy Lawrence and Andrew Thomas.

Essentially, this event represents a combined will-it-work-this-time prelaunch test and real-time launch countdown, a rare event in the history of human spaceflight. Even the relentlessly rational engineers of NASA were resorting to superstition.

''No doubt, there is some degree of finger-crossing,'' said Pete Nickolenko, a NASA test director who could not recall the last time something like this might have happened.

Even if Discovery fails the test -- if the fuel gauge acts up again -- NASA may proceed with the countdown.

Former astronaut Winston Scott noted that shuttle components are routinely tested as the countdown ticks toward zero, but it is highly unusual for engineers still to be dealing with an unexplained problem as liftoff approaches.

Nevertheless, given the circumstances, he endorsed the plan.

''I would feel confident strapping into the orbiter knowing these tests are going on,'' said Scott, who flew in space twice and now runs the Florida Space Authority. ``I think this is a good course of action.''

At issue is a device that monitors liquid hydrogen in Discovery's external fuel tank. A still-unexplained fault in the sensor or its wiring forced NASA to scrub the first launch attempt. The same problem occurred during a fueling test in April.

Four sensors help make sure that the shuttle's three main engines don't cut off prematurely or too late. Either of those events could trigger another fatal accident.

A different problem with the external fuel tank -- insulating foam that ripped off and punched a hole in the left wing -- caused the Columbia accident. All seven astronauts died.

In the wake of Discovery's scrubbed launch and after unsuccessful study by hundreds of engineers, mission managers decided to switch a few wires, rework three grounding connections, take their tests to the next level by fueling the tank, hope for the best and give it a try today.

NASA flight rules require all four sensors to operate properly, but mission managers said they might permit launch if one sensor fails again and everything else seems fine.

Asked Monday about the propriety of conducting the first post-Columbia mission aboard a ship that might still harbor an unresolved defect, Nickolenko said: ``I think that we've done an extensive degree of troubleshooting and analysis . . .. We fully expect that it [the gauge] should work as designed.''

Collins said her crew agreed and was ready to fly.

''We are very proud of the work that the engineers and the managers and the technicians have done over the past week and a half, trying to find out what's going on with this very elusive problem,'' she said.

Herald staff writer Phil Long contributed to this report
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