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NASA Will Decide on Shuttle Repair Thursday

NASA officials informed the crew of the Endeavour that it will make a decision Thursday on whether to repair a gash on the belly of the shuttle.

If needed, the repair would be performed during a spacewalk, which would occur no earlier than Saturday. Even though no decision on the tile repair has been reached, NASA has told two astronauts to prepare for a repair mission just in case. The space walk could keep Endeavour and its crew of seven, including teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, at the space station at least one extra day.

On Wednesday, Rick Mastracchio, one of the astronauts who would attempt the repair, had to cut his latest spacewalk short after he noticed a hole in his left glove.

The long rip in the thumb penetrated only the two outer layers of the five-layer glove, and he was never in any danger, officials at Mission Control said. However, he was ordered back inside as a precaution. His spacewalking partner quickly finished up and went inside.

Preliminary tests found there was no need for fixing the gouge, but mission managers are waiting for the completion of heat-blasting tests on the ground.

John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said Wednesday night that thermal analyses have shown the gouge — about the length and width of a business card — would not prevent Endeavour from returning home safely.

Part of the gash penetrates a pair of inch-deep thermal tiles, exposing a thin felt fabric that is the final barrier before the shuttle's aluminum frame.

The gash was caused when a piece of foam broke off of Endeavour's external fuel tank during the Aug. 8 liftoff. The debris, which may have contained some ice, weighed less than an ounce, and was 4 inches long, almost 4 inches wide and almost 2 inches deep. It peeled away from a bracket on the tank, fell against a strut lower on the tank, then pierced the shuttle's belly.

These brackets, which hold in place the fuel lines that feed the tank, have shed foam more frequently since shuttle flights resumed following the 2003 Columbia disaster, Shannon said. Engineers speculate more ice could be forming on these brackets because the super-cold fuel is being loaded an hour earlier than before.

NASA is redesigning the brackets, but the new ones won't be ready until next year.

Testing should be completed Wednesday, officials said.

In another positive development, NASA finally succeeded in turning the space shuttle into a classroom two decades after teacher Christa McAuliffe died in the Challenger explosion.

Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup in the teacher-in-space program, took questions and spoke to hundreds of youngsters packed into the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise, less than 100 miles from the elementary school where Morgan taught before joining the astronaut corps.

One child wanted to know about exercising in space. In response, Morgan lifted the two large men floating alongside her, one in each hand, and pretended to be straining. Another youngster wanted to see a demonstration of drinking in space. Morgan and her colleagues obliged by squeezing bubbles from a straw in a drink pouch and swallowing the red blobs, which floated everywhere.

Morgan was also asked how being a teacher compared to being an astronaut.

"Astronauts and teachers actually do the same thing," she answered. "We explore, we discover and we share. And the great thing about being a teacher is you get to do that with students,

and the great thing about being an astronaut is you get to do it in space, and those are absolutely wonderful jobs."

Morgan's 19-year-old son, Adam, wrote and performed Wednesday morning's wakeup song, "Good Morning, World": "Wake up big shuttle crew, you've got a lot to do," he crooned. "Orbiting over land, but don't forget the view. Outside your window lies your world in brown and blue. So proud of you."

The Endeavour crew is halfway through a two-week mission to the international space station. The astronauts have completed most of their primary goals, including attaching a new truss segment to the space station and replacing a gyroscope that helps control the station's orientation.

In a spacewalk scheduled for Wednesday, astronauts Clay Anderson and Mastracchio performed tasks to prepare one of the station's solar arrays to be moved to another spot on the orbiting outpost during a later mission.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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