Falling debris during launch draws concern
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- There will be no more shuttle
launches until NASA engineers determine the effect of debris that fell from
the shuttle Discovery during blastoff Tuesday, said Bill Parsons, space
shuttle program manager.
"We are treating it very seriously," he told reporters. "Are we losing sleep
over it? Not yet."
He added, "We will continue to do the evaluation."
Discovery is due to return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on August 7.
The date of the next planned mission had not been set.
Earlier Wednesday NASA lead flight director Paul Hill said that, based on
engineers' "first-blush" analysis of falling debris, there was "no
significant problem" with the orbiting shuttle.
Hill spoke to reporters after astronauts, using a robotic arm equipped with
a camera and laser, spent "one hell of a day" poring over every inch of
Discovery, looking for surface damage.
Although the mission had been scheduled to search for damage, concern about
the issue was heightened after videotape from an array of cameras trained on
Discovery during Tuesday's liftoff showed a piece of debris falling away
from the underside of the orbiter.
NASA officials said the debris could have broken off from a tile near a door
covering the nose landing gear. Space shuttles have shed tile during
previous missions without consequences.
But falling debris from the shuttle Columbia during its ascent was blamed
for damage to the craft that led to its destruction and the deaths of all
seven crew members upon its re-entry into Earth's atmosphere in February
The subsequent grounding of the shuttle fleet and the investigation into the
disaster prompted NASA to make safety-related activities a priority for this
first post-Columbia mission.
Appearing at a news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas,
Hill said that NASA engineers' "first blush, when they looked at this, was
it wasn't going to be a significant problem." But, he added, engineers have
seen "some things" in video from the launch that cause "some concern."
"This has been one hell of a day," Hill said, referring to Discovery's
seven-member crew's operation of the 50-foot robotic arm and its 50-foot
boom extension. "The crew has had three crew members fully employed, doing
nothing but this all day long. And when any of the rest of them had a spare
moment, they were also there helping to look out the windows and look at
NASA was analyzing data from video and from the robotic arm, the launch and
elsewhere to decide what steps -- if any -- to take next.
"We should start seeing the jury coming in on those decisions by the end of
the crew's day tomorrow," Hill said. "My guess is we're not going to have a
At a Tuesday news conference, NASA flight operations manager John Shannon
predicted that the space agency would have enough information by Sunday to
decide whether any repairs are needed and, if so, whether such repairs would
Shannon said the initial estimate of the debris showed it was about 1.5
inches long. He said it might be the tile covering rather than the tile
Footage of Discovery's launch also showed a piece of debris falling from the
external fuel tank at the time it separated from the orbiter, Shannon said.
However, it did not strike the orbiter, he said.
Footage also showed that the external fuel tank's nose cone hit a bird about
2.5 seconds after liftoff -- when Discovery was probably traveling too
slowly to sustain any damage, he said.
Hill said it has not been lost on controllers that this is the first mission
after the Columbia disaster.
"We have seven folks living on this space shuttle and counting on us to do
the right thing and keep them safe and not to get all giddy and high-fiving
each other," he said.
"There's a certain amount of almost shock that we really are here, we really
are doing these things that so many folks ... thought that we couldn't do."
As the orbiter approaches the international space station for a scheduled
Thursday 7:18 a.m. ET docking, the station's crew will photograph Discovery
to look further for any damage.
Shuttle crew members plan to test repair techniques during three scheduled
space walks by astronauts Steve Robinson and Soichi Noguchi of Japan. During
their space walks, Robinson and Noguchi also plan to service the space
As part of the safety changes instituted after Columbia, NASA developed
contingency plans for astronauts to try to repair damaged shuttles so they
can return to Earth. In the event a spacecraft cannot be repaired, plans
call for the crew to take refuge in the space station until a rescue mission
can be launched.
Make sure to visit the Flagship website:
NASA is always last to post their own press releases. Just look at how
often they update the Mars Rover status nowdays... you're lucky to see an
update every 10 days.
Wasn't the ET foam covered with some white coating for the first few
flights? IIRC, this coating was removed as a weight savings. Seems to
me the extra weight would be a smell price to pay for a little better
"Thin air? Why is it always thin air? Never fat air, chubby air,
mostly-fit-could-stand-to-lose-a-few-pounds air?" -- Garibaldi
Once again, using the magic of "search" and the magic words "external
tank paint weight" we find the following:
With sewn-together old socks, for all I care. The mere fact that
they've been compromising safety to add a mere 1000 pounds of payload
(less than 1/30th of its' total capacity...) is verging on criminal!
Now wait a minute.
First of all the weight difference you are talking about was nothing more
than paint. The paint gave no additional structural integrity to the foam.
It did make the Shuttle stack look nice but when you consider that removing
it means an additional half ton of science experiments or life support
supplies for the crew of the Space Station, well, orange looks beautiful to
me. When deletion of the paint was first considered there was concern that
rain could penetrate into the foam adding weight but extensive testing was
performed and the foam was more impervious to water than had ever been
expected. So you choose, 1000 lbs. of paint or 1000 lbs. of valuable
Secondly, netting, shrink wrap, foam chemistry and many other reinforcement
methods have been studied. There were also studies on foam application
methods, insulation shaping and alternate insulation techniques but none
have been deemed viable. Yet. Stay tuned for further developments. This
problem will be fixed and we will fly again.
Thirdly, if you think we'd reject an idea that would improve flight safety
for a few extra pounds of payload then consider the fact that these are
people we know personally. There is no one who cares more about the crew of
the Space Shuttle than those of us who work in the NASA community. The
astronauts are more than just names to us. They are our coworkers, our
neighbors and our friends. We work every day to improve the safety of space
flight. I take issue with anyone who would suggest otherwise and suggest
that they ask themselves if they would be as careless with their friends and
coworkers' lives as they suggest we are.
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