Shuttle Commander: Next Mission Will Be Safer

The commander of the next space shuttle said Friday that NASA has taken the right steps to reduce the amount of potentially lethal foam that falls off during launch.

"We will lose foam on this flight, just like every other," said commander Steven Lindsey, who could lead a crew into space as early as May. "The key is to make sure that the foam we do lose is a small enough size so it can't hurt us if it hits the vehicle."

NASA had redesigned the external fuel tank after a large piece of insulating foam hit the wing of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, sparking the disaster that killed seven astronauts.

Despite the redesign, foam unexpectedly fell off Discovery's fuel tank last July during the first shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster. In response, NASA removed a troublesome section of foam that had protected cables running along the fuel tank.

Lindsey said he had studied wind tunnel testing on the foam and is confident that the recent changes will help. More wind tunnel tests are expected before May.

Lindsey, along with crew members Mark Kelly, Mike Fossum, Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson and Piers Sellers, visited the Kennedy Space Center Friday to get "up close and personal" with the space shuttle Discovery for the first time. Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency didn't attend.

During Discovery's 12-day mission to the international space station, crew members will go on three spacewalks to make some repairs and test a 50-foot boom to see if it can be used to fix the shuttle's heat shield. The crew also will deliver cargo and supplies for expanding the space station.

Extra time has been carved out during the second and third days of the mission to inspect the shuttle for problems. As it did in the last mission, the spacecraft will be flipped over so space station crew members can look for any damage and take photos. The crew has trained for the unexpected, Lindsey said.

"Every flight I've been on, there's something unexpected that happens," Lindsey said. "That's the nature of the business."