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ENGINEERS SAY LOOSE SEAL ON COLUMBIA ISN'T A PROBLEM

NASA told Columbia's astronauts Saturday they will not have to interrupt their medical experiments for an emergency spacewalk to fix a loose seal in the cargo bay. And in an unusual public exchange, the shuttle's commander initially balked at the plan.

However, he later seemed more satisfied with the idea after analyzing test data and talking to Mission Control.Engineers do not believe the seal will prevent the cargo bay doors from closing tightly for the return to Earth later this week. If there is a problem, the nine-day mission will be extended a day and astronauts James Bagian and Tamara Jernigan will be sent out to fix the seal, NASA said.

"I guess we are not all that sure that the door will be able to close" properly, commander Byran O'Connor responded, when told of the plan to wait.

"But we'll go ahead and read your message, and we can talk more later," said O'Connor, a Marine colonel.

Late Saturday, O'Connor spent several minutes discussing the seal problem with astronaut Marsha Ivins, who communicates with the crew from Mission Control. Afterward, Ivins asked if all his questions had been answered.

"Yeah. I guess you'll be getting back to us with some more information on how we're going to do re-entry day," he said.

Some changes will be made because one astronaut will watch the doors close while inside the scientific laboratory, and Ivins said the crew will be sent detailed plans well before landing day.

O'Connor later told Mission Control that the additional information sent to the crew "pretty much answered our big question" about whether the loose seal could prevent the doors from closing.

The two massive doors covering Columbia's cargo bay must shut tightly when the spaceship begins the fiery plunge through the atmosphere at the end of the flight. Otherwise, the ship could burn up. Columbia is scheduled to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Friday.

Between the technical talks, O'Connor said his crew was sorry they missed a message noting they would be over Washington on Saturday at the time of a victory parade for the Persian Gulf troops.

NASA flight director Randy Stone, when asked about O'Connor's earlier comments, said the commander was being "the typical engineer that we all are."

NASA had considered an emergency spacewalk Sunday to fix the loose weatherstripping. But after testing another shuttle on the ground, engineers concluded the seal on Columbia would pose no problem.