July 29, 2005

Discovery commander surprised by debris problem

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Shuttle Discovery commander Eileen
Collins said on Friday she was surprised the flying debris
problem that brought down Columbia in 2003 re-emerged on their
flight and said shuttles should not return to space until it
was fixed.

She and astronaut Andy Thomas said in press interviews from
space they were not worried about damage the debris may have
caused Discovery, saying the orbiter looked "very clean"
despite a few nicks to its protective tile.

"What I'd like to say is this is something that has to be
fixed," Collins said. "I don't think we should fly again unless
we do something to prevent this from happening again."

Videos showed loose insulation foam from Discovery's
external fuel tank appearing to strike the orbiter wing as it
took off on Tuesday, but the U.S. space agency said it believed
the shuttle was in good condition.

The astronauts were to use lasers and television cameras on
Friday to inspect Discovery's wings and belly for damage for a
second time in the mission.

Loose foam from the fuel tank knocked a hole in the heat
shield of Columbia's wing when it launched on Jan. 16, 2003,
and 16 days later the shuttle disintegrated over Texas as it
glided toward Florida for landing. All seven astronauts died.

NASA has worked for 2-1/2 years and spent $1 billion to
stop the foam problem and make the shuttle safer.

"We were actually quite surprised to hear we had some large
pieces of debris fall off the external tank. It wasn't what we
had expected," Collins said. "Frankly, we were disappointed to
hear that had happened."

Thomas added: "We weren't surprised from the point of view
that we think there's a risk to our own entry. We were
surprised that it had happened after so many good people worked
to mitigate the problem."

"I think it's a bit dramatic to say we dodged a bullet," he

Collins took heart in the fact that the loose foam came
from a part of the fuel tank that had not been re-engineered,
meaning, she said, that there was hope it could be fixed.

But Thomas said it was important that NASA "try to
understand why this particular area was not examined originally
when the whole issue of foam debris came up."

NASA officials on Wednesday grounded the shuttle fleet
until the foam problem was resolved. Shuttle Atlantis was
scheduled to fly in September, but that mission appears in
doubt now.

Collins said that despite the debris problem, Discovery was
performing well and that she was enjoying her fourth shuttle

"It's magical up here," she said.

Discovery was flying with the International Space Station
220 miles above the earth after they linked up on Thursday. It
was the first shuttle visit to the $95 billion station since
November 2002.

On board Discovery was an Italian-built, barrel-shaped
"multi-purpose logistics module," more colorfully known as
Raffaello, filled with 15 tons of supplies and equipment for
the station and its two-man crew.

Raffaello was removed by robot arm from the shuttle cargo
bay and docked to the station on Friday for unloading.

Later, the astronauts will reload it with an estimated 13
tons of junk that have piled up on the station the past 2-1/2
years for transport to Earth.