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Shuttle Prepares To Return

8 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The seven astronauts aboard the U.S. space shuttle "Discovery" are preparing to return to Earth today.

The landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:47 GMT will be the first for a U.S. space shuttle since 1 February 2003, when all seven U.S. astronauts aboard the shuttle "Columbia" died during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

There has been some concern about the safety of "Discovery" on re-entry because of loose fabric sealing gaps between the shuttle's heat-resistant tiles. However, that problem was repaired during a spacewalk, and officials with the U.S. space agency NASA say the shuttle is safe to return to Earth.

The shuttle's 13-day flight to the International Space Station may be the last one for some time. NASA grounded the shuttle fleet after a piece of insulating foam broke off the shuttle's external fuel tank during the 26 July liftoff -- the very thing that doomed "Columbia" and was supposed to have been corrected.