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Space shuttle Discovery is cleared for return

HOUSTON -- Space shuttle Discovery's astronauts got some happy news yesterday: It's safe to fly home.

Mission Control informed the crew of six that the ship's thermal shielding is ``100 percent cleared for entry" in another week.

``Boy, that is great news, that's fantastic," shuttle commander Steve Lindsey said. ``And to get all that done by the end of flight day six . . . is just amazing."

``Everyone here around the room, as you can imagine, is most happy," Mission Control replied.

Only one heat shield issue remained going into the late afternoon mission management meeting -- a 2-inch-long piece of fabric filler sticking out about an inch from thermal tiles on Discovery's belly. Engineers determined it wasn't necessary to have an astronaut pluck the strip out during a spacewalk and that it posed no concern for the spaceship's return to Earth on July 17.

So managers gave the heat shield an official bill of health.

Officials had already decided that several other nicks and spots -- ranging from bird droppings to frayed fabric -- were no big deal.

Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said the healthy shuttle -- and the crew's accomplishments in orbit so far -- pave the way for the next mission in just over 1 1/2 months. That's when assembly will resume at the international space station; construction was halted by the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Sandwiched between a daring spacewalk Saturday and a crucial but more routine spacewalk today, Discovery's crew had an easy day yesterday, said pilot Mark Kelly. They were scheduled to work only 15 hours, instead of 16 hours.

``Today has been a relatively light day compared to the others," Kelly said in the press conference. Those first five days of the mission were so busy ``we had to take our meals on the run," Lindsey said.

Saturday's spacewalk, during which astronauts Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum stood on the end of 100 feet of sometimes-oscillating shuttle robotic arm and extension boom, proved that emergency shuttle repair work can be done from that unusual vantage point, the astronauts said. But they said the feeling of being out there at the end of the boom was a little unusual.

``You find yourself lying sideways when you think you're standing up," Sellers said. ``It's an unnatural feeling, but not really very unpleasant."

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