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Astronauts say they're ready but realistic

The seven astronauts on the next space shuttle mission gathered before reporters Friday to say how confident and eager they are to blast into space.

But just in case, they're taking along repair kits.

When the space shuttle Discovery lifts off in May or June, it will carry new technology to make an in-flight inspection. NASA scientists and astronauts will be able to check whether the shuttle has suffered the kind of damage to its exterior that led Columbia to disintegrate as it approached Earth two years ago.

If such damage does occur, "we'll know it," said astronaut Eileen Collins, who will command the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster. "In fact, if we have a very, very small hole or crack, we'll know that."

And if damage occurs, the astronauts will be prepared for the possibility of making repairs to Discovery's heat-resistant tiles or to its "RCC" panels, the super-strong gray panels on the leading wing edges that absorb much of the heat as the shuttle re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

Those changes make the Discovery mission a kind of test drive for the revamped shuttle program, with the hindsight from Columbia very much on everyone's mind.

A piece of insulating foam on the fuel tank that detached during launch is thought to have damaged the wing on Columbia, causing the craft to burn up on its return to Earth in February 2003.

"What we've learned over the last two years is that it doesn't take a large amount of damage to cause a potential catastrophe to happen," said first-time shuttle astronaut Charles J. Camarda, who is working on the new plans with NASA scientists.

He said they are still in development, but there are enough repair alternatives that astronauts Stephen K. Robinson and Soichi Noguchi, from the Japanese space agency JAXA, "could easily go out there and apply these techniques and feel confident that we would have a very good chance of returning safely."

But if the astronauts make an unexpected discovery of extensive damage, NASA also has developed a contingency plan that it hopes never to use: sending the shuttle Atlantis rapidly into space to save the Discovery crew.

Speaking at the landing site where Discovery will return later this year, the astronauts said they think NASA has improved the shuttle's technical capabilities and also developed a management culture that will allow it to root out any lurking problems.

"If it wasn't safe, I wouldn't get on it. I think that's pretty obvious," said Collins, who became the first female shuttle commander on an earlier flight of Columbia.

But Collins also tempered her comments with realism.

"I'm going to stand here and say there is still risk in space flight," she said. But the innovations and increased awareness since Columbia will help, she said.

"Space flight will get safer and safer because of what we've learned," she said.

One of the main innovations on this flight will be a device that extends the existing shuttle arm, normally used for maneuvering items in the payload bay. With the longer arm _ called the "orbital boom sensor system" _ astronauts can mount a video camera that will allow them and Mission Control to study any cracks, pockmarks or big holes in the tiles.

Also, the RCC panels are being fitted with sensors that will make it clear whether the shuttle suffered from too much heat or from the impact of any objects.

And the shuttle's fuel tank has been redesigned so that the insulating foam is not as likely to fall in the wrong places and damage the orbiter. The new version arrived at Kennedy Space Center via barge this week. NASA also is installing a more sophisticated camera that will look at the fuel tank for signs of trouble just after separation from the orbiter.

Using the new shuttle inspection equipment will form a major portion of the mission, but Discovery also will dock with the international space station to replenish supplies and make a repair.

The technical innovations are not the only way this shuttle mission will reflect the experience of Columbia. Astronauts also plan to take into space personal mementos of the crew members who perished on that flight.