Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Shuttle Fleet Grounded - Current Flight Okay

The current shuttle flight of Discovery is thought to be safe. But future flights of the Space Shuttle will be grounded until this problem can be fixed. Because NASA already thought they had solved the problem, major design changes are sure to be in store for the Space Shuttle fleet and specifically, the external tank. It appears that in the past two years, NASA focused on making the Space Shuttle safe from falling debris from the external tank and did not focus on preventing foam from coming off the tank in the first place. NASA didn't realize how big of a piece can fall off the tank, and no matter how robust you built the Shuttle, getting hit by a two-foot chunk of foam while traveling at 3 times the speed of a bullet will be quite damaging. Read the quotes below for more information.

NASA officials have grounded the agency's remaining space shuttles after the Discovery orbiter's external tank shed chunks of foam, including one piece more than 2 feet long.

The problem is similar to what occurred in the disastrous Columbia flight in 2003 and was thought to have been fixed.

Space shuttle officials said that while there is currently no indication the foam contacted the Discovery orbiter, the incident should not have happened in the first place and is reason enough to put a hold on future flights.

Images taken of the external tank in orbit identified the foam separation, and also detailed additional areas where the material pulled loose from its tank, they said.

"Until we've fixed this, we're not ready to fly," said Bill Parsons, NASA's space shuttle program manager, during a press briefing here at Johnson Space Center. "You could say that we're grounded."

"You have to admit when you're wrong. We were wrong," said shuttle program manager Bill Parsons (search). "We need to do some work here, and so we're telling you right now, that the ... foam should not have come off. It came off. We've got to go do something about that."

Since the Columbia tragedy, NASA has spent over $1 billion on making sure shuttles would be safe from falling foam debris.

"We won't be able to fly again," until the hazard is removed, Parsons told reporters in a briefing Wednesday evening. "Obviously we have some more work to do."

Parsons said, "Call it luck or whatever, it didn't harm the orbiter." If the foam had broken away earlier in flight, when the atmosphere is thicker, it could have caused catastrophic damage to Discovery.

NASA's Mission Management Team Chair Wayne Hale said in a late afternoon briefing that according to current data, Discovery is in good shape for a safe return home, the team’s main focus. More detailed analysis will follow over the next few days to be sure.

Commander Eileen Collins and her crew wrapped up the first surveying of the Shuttle's protective skin today. Crewmembers used cameras and a special boom on the robot arm to inspect Discovery's wings, nose cap, and crew cabin. They also used handheld cameras to inspect tiles on the Orbital Maneuvering System pods.

Click here for NASA images of the external tank.


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