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Brief After a week of hmm-ing and haa-ing, NASA has elected not to repair the hole in the Shuttle Endeavour before it returns to Earth.

Mission chief John Shannon said the decision had not been unanimous, but had been "pretty overwhelming", according to the Houston Chronicle.

Mission controllers were worried that the three and a half inch gash in the thermal tiles on the underside of the craft could expose the shuttle to serious damage during the firestorm of re-entry. Extensive testing since the hole was spotted has shown that the structure will hold up, NASA says.

In 2003, a weakness in the thermal protection on Columbia led to the shuttle breaking up in the atmosphere, with the loss of all seven astronauts on board.

NASA says it was never worried that the damage to Endeavour was likely to lead to a similar catastrophe.

Instead, the problem was the the aluminium frame might be damaged by the heat, and would need extensive and expensive repairs once it arrived back on Earth.

Mission controllers told the crew, commanded by Scott Kelly, that there would be no need for an additional spacewalk, adding: "It's great we finally have a decision and we can press forward." ®

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