Shuttle commander says foam problem must be fixed
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 29, 2005
The shuttle Discovery's crew was surprised and disappointed to learn about foam insulation falling off their ship's external tank during launch. Commander Eileen Collins said today the shuttle program should remain grounded until the problem is fixed, but she said talk of retiring the winged spaceplanes is premature.
"This is something that has to be fixed," Collins told CBS Radio. "I don't think we should fly again unless we do something to prevent it from happening again. But I'd also like to point out, we're in the space shuttle Discovery right now, which is operating fantastically.
"I was expecting a lot more malfunctions or incidents with the equipment on Discovery because it's been so long since we've last flown. But it has done well. So I'm very confident. The shuttle should be retired eventually, but we've got more years in them and I think we need to get this problem licked with the external tank and keep working on it. I'm not ready to give up yet."
During launch Tuesday, a large 0.9-pound piece of foam debris flew off an aerodynamic "ramp" designed to smooth the airflow over a cable tray and two pressurization lines. While the foam did not hit the shuttle, it showed NASA had failed to solve the problem that doomed Columbia two and a half years ago.
As it turns out, the so-called PAL ramp was not part of NASA's post-Columbia redesign effort. Andrew Thomas, joining Collins on Discovery's flight deck, said engineers need to re-examine that aspect of the tank's construction and come up with a fix.
"I don't think it's time to retire the shuttle based on this alone," he said. "But I think if you look at where the agency wants to take the human spaceflight program, I think we need to continue the development of the space station, which requires the shuttle, and then after that I think then you should address the question of what to do with the shuttle. I think retirement is a viable option at that point. But I don't think it would be yet. I think the important thing now is to do the engineering that's necessary to fix this problem and make sure that it doesn't happen again."
Collins said the crew was "very surprised" when flight controllers informed them about the foam loss. "I did not expect any large pieces of foam to fall off the external tank. We thought we had that problem licked."
"Having thought about it for a while, in the end I'm disappointed this has happened, but it's something I believe we can fix," she said. "We didn't do a while lot of engineering work to that particular area of the tank so there is potential there to fix that and keep the shuttle flying."
Said Thomas: "To all of us on the crew, it was a great sense of disappointment when we heard about that. It wasn't a concern to us because we felt somehow that entry might be under threat, it was a disappointment because we know so many good people who worked so hard on that problem to make sure the tank wouldn't liberate foam and here it happened on the first return-to-flight mission. That's a huge engineering disappointment. It's also a disappointment because we know it will now be necessary to keep the shuttles on the ground for a while longer while this problem gets the appropriate attention that it will deserve."
Asked if he viewed the foam incident as a close call personally, Thomas said "it's probably a bit dramatic to say that we dodged a bullet, although there's clearly some power in that metaphor."
"I do think it's important that we as an agency go back and look at this technically and try to understand what happened and understand why this particular area was not examined originally when the whole question of foam debris came up, as part of the post-flight analysis process, to make sure that this problem can be properly fixed."
The astronauts earlier today used the international space station's robot arm to pull a large Italian-built cargo module out of Discovery's cargo bay and then to attach it to a port on the station's Unity module. The cargo module will be unloaded over the next few days and repacked with no-longer-needed equipment and trash for return to Earth aboard Discovery.
In the meantime, shuttle pilot James Kelly and Charles Camarda positioned the shuttle's robot arm and a 50-foot-long sensor boom for so-called "focused inspections" of areas that suffered apparent damage during launch.
Nine target sites were identified by image analysts as areas of interest requiring additional examination, including a chipped heat-shield tile on the edge of a nose landing gear door, minor dings around an aft fuel tank attachment fitting and scuffs seen on a few wing leading edge panels.
"We do know that we have imagery that shows that that large piece of foam did not impact the orbiter," Collins said. "But we do have some other damage that is not significant. Remember, every shuttle flight does have a little bit of damage, there's no way to stop everything, the smallest pieces of foam from falling off the tank. So we do have areas we are going to go look at.
"The ground, Houston mission control, knows the areas from pictures taken from the space station yesterday, we know where to go look. So we're going to take the lasers and the camera, we'll be able to see ... the areas of potential damage and the depth of them. Again, we don't think any of them are significant but it's going to be good to go look at it. And it's also a good test of the system we put together."
Thomas said images of the shuttle taken from the station show Discovery "looks remarkably clean in terms of any damage to tiles. ... We were really quite impressed with the integrity of the orbiter."
With future shuttle flights on hold, NASA managers are considering the possibility of extending Discovery's mission by one day to let the astronauts do as much as possible to help out the space station's two-man crew.
"We're working on a major resupply here, we're bringing them water, logistics, we're taking home many of the things they don't need any more to give them more space to work," Collins said. "I think we'll be able to continue the space station in the configuration they're in, although it's not desired. We do need to get back to three or more crew members so we can do what we need to do on the space station for exploration."
But that will require additional shuttle flights and for now, future station visits are on hold.
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