WASHINGTON – President Bush said Thursday that although the Discovery space shuttle (search) has been bedeviled by the need for repairs, he is confident space officials will make whatever decisions are necessary to ensure the safety of the astronauts.
"I believe that the mission is important, and I know that the mission directors will make the right decision about how to proceed," Bush told reporters at his Texas ranch where he was meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. "Ours is a country that values the safety of our citizens, particularly those we ask to take risks in space."
Problems with the shuttle craft -- now about 225 miles above the Earth -- have raised concern that its return could be hazardous and cause further setbacks for U.S. space exploration to the Moon and beyond.
He said Andy Card, White House chief of staff, has been in touch with the NASA administrator on a regular basis. "I've got the confidence -- all the confidence -- that they will make the right decision," Bush said.
Discovery was the first shuttle to return to orbit in the 2 1/2 years since Columbia broke apart over Texas as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
"The plan right now is to phase out the shuttle by 2010 and then begin to put a strategy in place that will use the moon as a launching spot for further exploration," Bush said.
"I appreciate the administrator working on getting that strategy in place so that when the decision is made to finally get rid of this phase of exploration, we'll be ready to take on the new phase."
Discovery docked at the international space station on July 28, a day after NASA decided to ground future shuttle flights. The decision was made because a chunk of insulating foam flew off Discovery's fuel tank during liftoff -- as it did in Columbia's doomed mission.
Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale says that overall, Discovery is in good shape. But there remained a lingering issue: a hole torn in a thermal blanket near the cockpit window.
NASA told space shuttle Discovery's astronauts on Thursday that a spacewalk to repair a torn thermal blanket will not be necessary. Mission Control told the crew of seven that the shuttle will be safe for re-entry on Monday even with the torn blanket below the cockpit window.