Nation/World Briefly: Antenna failure keeps crew from checking shuttle

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Discovery’s astronauts surveyed their ship Tuesday for signs of launch damage, but the job was complicated by the failure of the space shuttle’s big dish antenna.

Without the antenna, the seven astronauts have no way to send or receive big packages of information, such as images of the shuttle’s wings and nose that are usually sent immediately to Mission Control.

Instead, commander Alan Poindexter and his crew had to store the data on 40-minute tapes that were fed, in turn, into a computer for digital conversion. The information will be relayed once the shuttle reaches the International Space Station today, delaying analysis.

The rendezvous was expected to be trickier than usual, given the antenna trouble.

Meanwhile, NASA on Tuesday signed a contract to pay Russia $55.8 million per astronaut for six Americans to fly into space on Russian Soyuz capsules in 2013 and 2014. NASA needs to get rides on Russian rockets to the space station because it plans to retire the space shuttle fleet later this year.

NASA now pays half as much, about $26.3 million per astronaut, when it uses Russian ships.

NASA spokesman John Yembrick said the cost is going up because Russia has to build more capsules for the extra flights.

Calif.: Riskier surgeries for back pain raise costs

A study of Medicare patients shows that costlier, more complex spinal fusion surgeries are on the rise — and sometimes done unnecessarily — for a common lower back condition caused by aging and arthritis. What’s more alarming is that the findings suggest these more challenging operations are riskier, leading to more complications and even deaths. The federally funded story appears today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

D.C.: Troops question effect if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is lifted

Troops attending the first meeting of its kind on ending the ban on gays in the military said Tuesday they want to know what changes were in store for them if gays were allowed to serve openly. Picked at random and assembled in the Pentagon auditorium, about 350 rank-and-file troops asked the leaders of a new working group whether bunking arrangements would change and if the spouses of gay personnel would be given military family benefits, among other issues. The answers to those questions aren’t expected until the end of the year, when the working group releases its findings on the impact openly gay service might have on the force.

Utah: Polygamous town warrants

Government agencies in twin polygamous communities along the Utah-Arizona border were served Tuesday with search warrants seeking evidence on suspected misuse of public funds, authorities said. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office said warrants were served at fire stations and private residences in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. The twin communities are home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religious sect that follows Warren Jeffs, a church leader serving prison time after being convicted of rape as an accomplice in the marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin.

Indonesia: 7.7 quake hits

A 7.7-magnitude earthquake shook Indonesia’s northwest island of Sumatra early today, prompting a brief tsunami warning and sending residents rushing for higher ground. There were scattered reports of injuries, but only minor damage was immediately reported. A 2004 tsunami triggered by a magnitude-9.2 earthquake in the same part of Indonesia killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries on the Indian Ocean basin.

North Korea: U.S. man sentenced for illegal entry

North Korea said today it sentenced an American to eight years’ hard labor and a fine equivalent to $700,000 for entering the country illegally and unspecified hostile acts. Aijalon Mahli Gomes acknowledged his wrongdoing during a court trial Tuesday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch. The North said last month that it arrested Gomes, 30, of Boston on Jan. 25 for trespassing after he crossed into the country from China. Gomes had been teaching English in South Korea. No details have been released about why Gomes went to the North.

From Herald news services

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