CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA (search) managers forged ahead with the countdown to the launch of space shuttle Discovery (search), confident they would be able to fix a few minor problems and would remain untroubled by summer storms.
"I think we're on our way," Bill Parsons, manager of the space shuttle program, said Monday following a meeting to review any potential problems.
The minor problems weren't expected to delay Wednesday's scheduled afternoon launch, the first since the Columbia disaster (search) 21/2 years ago. They dealt with fuel tank sensors that didn't read properly during a recent test and a balloon monitor that gathers data on upper-level wind speed.
NASA officials also wanted to review some of the tools that will be used during a spacewalk to test the shuttle's thermal protection system. The answers to those problems were expected to be finalized at a readiness meeting on Tuesday.
"We'll get it done," Parsons said. "We have every feeling that we will be ready to go."
Typical summer afternoon thunderstorms were in the forecast for Wednesday, but shuttle meteorologists put the chances of an on-time launch at 70 percent. A new tropical storm was also brewing in the Atlantic Ocean following on the heels of Hurricane Dennis, which left the Kennedy Space Center untouched.
A worst-case scenario would place Tropical Storm Emily at the space center by Monday, well after NASA would have three chances to launch Discovery.
Monday's two-days-before launch readiness meeting lasted 31/2 hours, considerably longer than was customary before Columbia took off on its final, fatally flawed mission. Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said there was a spirited discussion, and dissenting opinions were heard over a few technical issues.
He said the discussion was "just a new symbol of the openness" at NASA since the Columbia disaster. Investigators blamed the tragedy in part on the space agency's "broken safety culture," or a tendency to downplay risks and discourage engineers from speaking up.
Hale also said that NASA had significantly reduced the number of waivers on rules from about 6,500 for Columbia to more than 240 for Discovery.
"The point is that we have set a new principle that we're not approving waivers based on expediency," Hale said. "We're basing any waivers on good engineering, so that at the end of the day, the risk is minimal and certainly well understood."
Discovery is outfitted with a redesigned external fuel tank and has dozens of motion and temperature sensors embedded in the wings to detect any blows from fuel-tank foam insulation or other debris. The spaceship also holds a brand-new laser-tipped 50-foot boom that will be used by the astronauts to survey the wings and nose cap for any cracks or holes.
More than 100 cameras on the ground and aboard two planes will focus on Discovery as it climbs toward orbit, and spy satellites as well as astronauts on both the shuttle and the international space station will take their own pictures. The shuttle will spend more than a week at the space station, replenishing its cupboards and repairing broken equipment both inside and out.
NASA managers said they were exuberant in the final days before launch.
"It's like Christmas is coming," Hale said.