CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The astronauts who will fly the first space shuttle mission since the Columbia (search) tragedy said Tuesday that despite the latest launch delay, they are as motivated as ever and urged everyone to be patient and "hang in there."
"We want you to know that ... we are going to make ourselves even better in [the] few extra weeks that have been added before we fly," commander Eileen Collins (search) said at the launch pad holding the shuttle Discovery (search).
"We will fly our space shuttle someday and we will fly this mission. This is something that we're very excited about and we want you to hang with us, be patient. We know that we're doing the right thing, and we ask you to hang in there in the interest on the mission."
Collins and her six crew members are at Kennedy Space Center this week for a launch countdown demonstration. NASA decided to proceed with the rehearsal, which culminates with the astronauts climbing aboard Discovery on Wednesday, even though the flight has been bumped from May to mid-July.
Last-minute concerns about the potential for dangerous ice buildup on the external fuel tank prompted the postponement, announced Friday. So much attention had been focused on preventing large pieces of foam insulation from coming off the tank during liftoff — as was the case for Columbia in 2003 — that ice studies were not completed until last week.
Discovery will be returned to its hangar, perhaps late this week, so technicians can install a heater on the area of concern on the fuel tank.
In the meantime, seeing Discovery on the pad is "still very motivational for us," Collins told dozens of journalists.
"The feeling of being out here with our space shuttle, regardless of what our launch date is, we know we're that much closer to launch," she said.
Collins said that before Discovery can fly, NASA needs to be at the point where unacceptable risks, like ice, are either eliminated or understood enough to be acceptable.
Astronaut Charles Camarda, who has a Ph.D. in engineering, said he's confident that by launch day "the debris that's going to come off the tank will be small enough that it will be in the accepted risk category."
A chunk of foam the size of a carryon suitcase fell off and smacked Columbia's left wing during liftoff in 2003 and created a hole that led to the spacecraft's loss during re-entry. All seven astronauts were killed.
Astronaut Wendy Lawrence said she's relieved to have extra time to prepare for the 12-day mission to the international space station, considered a test flight because of the fuel-tank modifications and the hole-repair techniques that will be tried out for the first time in space.
"I'm actually looking forward to a little bit of a slower pace so I can actually spend a lot of time studying the procedures," Lawrence said.