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Astronaut To Make Unprecedented Repair On Space Shuttle <i>Discovery</i>

The crew of the space shuttle Discovery is preparing for an unprecedented in-flight repair of their space vehicle. VOA's Jim Bertel has more on this high-stakes task to remove protruding filler material from the ship's thermal tiles.

On Wednesday, astronaut Stephen Robinson will attempt a risky, never-before-tried repair job on the shuttle. The potential problem involves felt-like material called gap filler that is used between heat tiles. The filler is sticking out between two areas along the shuttle's belly.

Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fear anything that sticks out on reentry could disrupt the intense airflow underneath the shuttle.

John Pike, the director of, a military and space research group, says this could create a dangerous trail of super-heated gases. He says, "It could exceed the temperature capacity for tiles towards the back of the shuttle, that could cause burn-through. And could lead to the complete destruction of the vehicle."

To make the repair, astronaut Robinson will be attached to the International Space Station's 18-meter long robotic arm and moved around to the belly of the shuttle, a move never tried before. Astronaut Robinson adds, "Well, like most kind of repairs, it's conceptually very simple, but it has to be done very carefully."

Mr. Robinson will first try to pull out the gap-fillers. If that doesn't work, he'll try to cut them off.

Discovery's commander, Eileen Collins, believes in the plan and expects the shuttle will make a safe return to Earth. "We are highly confident in this entry and we have one unknown left and that is the gap filler," she said. "We hope to pull it out tomorrow (Wednesday) and after we've done that I think we are going to have a very clean entry."

The shuttle will remain docked at the space station until Saturday. Discovery is scheduled to return to Earth on Monday.