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NASA decides no shuttle repairs needed, Endeavour safe to fly home with gouged belly

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    HOUSTON — Astronauts prepared for an upcoming spacewalk and worked on chores at the international space station Friday, a day after learning they wouldn’t have to repair a gash in their ship.
    The shuttle Endeavour crew is more than halfway through their two-week mission. They have completed three spacewalks, installed a new truss segment to the station and replaced a gyroscope that controls the station’s orientation.
    Now that in-orbit repairs won’t need to be made, astronauts will spend the fourth spacewalk on Saturday installing a storage stand for an extension boom, among other miscellaneous tasks.
    For the past week, NASA has been occupied with a gouge on Endeavour’s belly. Tiles that are part of the ship’s heat shield were gashed during liftoff and mission managers ordered several tests to determine it needed to be repaired in orbit.
    Mission managers opted against any risky spacewalk repairs based on the overwhelming — but not unanimous — recommendations of hundreds of engineers. The massive amount of data they gathered indicated Endeavour would suffer no serious structural damage during next week’s re-entry.
    The gouge was deemed too small to be catastrophic, unlike the damage Columbia suffered four years ago.
    A spacewalk earlier this week, cut short by an astronaut’s ripped glove, showed how hazardous even a relatively routine jaunt outside the international space station can be.
    ‘‘I am 100 percent comfortable that the work that has been done has accurately characterized it (the damage) and that we will have a very successful re-entry,’’ said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. ‘‘I am also 100 percent confident that if we would have gotten a different answer and found out that this was something that was going to endanger the lives of the crew, that we had the capability on board to go and repair it and then have a successful entry.’’
    Endeavour is scheduled to land on Wednesday.
    The debris at liftoff carved out a 3 1/2-inch-long, 2-inch-wide gouge and dug all the way through the thermal tiles. Left completely exposed was a narrow 1-inch strip of the overlying felt fabric, the last barrier before the shuttle’s aluminum structure.
    The only way to fix the gouge would have been to send a pair of spacewalkers out with black protective paint and caulk-like goo, and maneuver them beneath the shuttle on the end of a 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom, with few if any close-up camera views of the work.
    A Nobel Prize-winning physicist who served on the Columbia investigation board four years ago, Stanford University’s Douglas Osheroff, questioned NASA’s hesitancy to perform the repairs since they ‘‘can only increase their chances of making it down.’’
    I don’t see why NASA is going to invent a fix and not use it,’’ Osheroff said before Thursday night’s decision. He added: ‘‘This attitude of, ‘It looks like it’s OK, let’s not do anything about it,’ it seems like the Columbia NASA.’’
    Osheroff said it’s imperative that the decision be made by NASA’s upper management, not just left with the shuttle mission management team, which occurred during Columbia.
    The mission management team did make the final decision on Endeavour, although NASA administrator Michael Griffin and chief of safety officer Bryan O’Connor listened in on Thursday’s meeting, Shannon said. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s space operations chief, participated in an earlier discussion.
    NASA was keeping an eye on Hurricane Dean and planned to discuss on Friday where to relocate Johnson Space Center employees if they need to evacuate.
    The Endeavour crew woke up Friday to pop hit ‘‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’’ by KT Tunstall.
    During the mission, crew member and teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan — who was Christa McAuliffe’s backup on the Challenger mission — has spoken to children in Idaho and Virginia, fulfilling a decades-old dream of an educator turning the space shuttle into a classroom.
    Associated Press writers Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.
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