SPACE CENTER, Houston - NASA told space shuttle Discovery's astronauts Thursday that a spacewalk to repair a torn thermal blanket will not be necessary.
Mission Control told the crew of seven that the shuttle will be safe for re-entry with the ripped blanket below the cockpit window.
The space agency had been considering sending the astronauts out to snip away part of the blanket for fear a 13-inch section weighing just under an ounce could tear away during the return to Earth and slam into the shuttle, perhaps causing grave damage.
It would have been the fourth spacewalk of the mission, and the second time during the flight that the astronauts had to step outside to repair the shuttle's thermal protection and reduce the risk of another Columbia-type tragedy during the trip home, when the spacecraft passes through the blowtorch heat of re-entry.
"We have good news," Mission Control radioed to Discovery. The mission management team concluded that the torn blanket "is safe for return. There's no issue."
An analysis showed that there would be no danger to the shuttle if a section of the blanket ripped away during re-entry, and wind tunnel tests in California showed the same thing, meaning no spacewalk will be necessary, Mission Control said.
Replied astronaut Soichi Noguchi, one of the crew's assigned spacewalkers: "That's, I would say, good news."
The shuttle is scheduled to return to Earth on Monday morning.
On Wednesday, Stephen Robinson made a spacewalk to remove two potentially dangerous pieces of heat-resistant cloth protruding from Discovery's underside. He used his gloved hand to gently pluck the two strips from the crevices between the thermal tiles.
It was the first time an astronaut had ever repaired the shuttle's exterior in space, and the first time one had ever ventured below the ship in orbit.
Robinson was barely back inside the shuttle and out of his spacesuit when Mission Control informed the crew about the chance of another spacewalk to deal with the torn thermal blanket.
As Discovery orbited the Earth on Thursday morning, the crew paid tribute to the seven astronauts who died on Columbia, and Discovery commander Eileen Collins said she was confident about returning home safely next week.
"We have looked at everything," Collins told The Associated Press in an interview. "I wouldn't fly this flight if I didn't think it was a safe thing to do."
Each crew member took a few minutes to discuss space exploration and its costs and remember those who did not make it home.
"We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard," astronaut Wendy Lawrence said, borrowing the words of President Kennedy. "And certainly, space exploration is not easy and there has been a human price that has been paid."
Columbia was doomed by a piece of insulating foam that fell off its external fuel tank during launch. The foam pierced a wing and caused the shuttle to disintegrate over Texas during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.
Because of the tragedy, Discovery's astronauts have spent much of the mission inspecting their ship, making repairs and testing out new repair techniques.
Discovery has been photographed and laser-analyzed in excruciating detail, and NASA officials have warned that some of the flaws they are spotting this time may not necessarily be reason for concern, or even anything out of the ordinary.