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Launch date set for NASA’s shuttle Discovery

CAPE CANAVERAL – NASA has settled on April 5 as the date for its next shuttle launch, one of four remaining missions to wrap up space station construction.

Senior managers met Friday and agreed unanimously on the launch date. They determined that a leaky helium valve aboard Discovery would pose no safety concerns.

Discovery will haul up spare parts and extra supplies for the International Space Station. During the two-week mission, President Barack Obama will travel to Florida to discuss his post-shuttle plans for NASA.

Obama supports deep-space exploration, but has yet to lay out a destination for astronauts or a timetable. He axed the Constellation moon program set up by his predecessor.

The leaky valve – part of the system for maneuvering the shuttle in orbit – would not close during testing earlier this month. It’s typically open anyway, and everything else in the system appears to be working fine.

Shuttle program manager John Shannon said there’s no reason, right now, why the final four missions can’t be completed by the end of September. He acknowledged
something could crop up to delay the remaining flights. “We almost had one here,” he said, referring to the valve trouble.

NASA’s inspector general office reported Thursday that the last shuttle flight may slip into 2011, based on history and various calculations.

There is one potential threat to the flight schedule: the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a major science experiment undergoing testing in the Netherlands. The particle physics detector is supposed to launch aboard Endeavour at the end of July but may not be ready in time.

Launch time on April 5 – the day after Easter – will be 6:21 a.m. EST.