August 18, 2005

Foam problems force NASA to delay shuttle launch

By Maggie Fox

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NASA has been forced to delay the
next launch of a space shuttle until March 2006 because more
time is needed to fix a problem with foam flying off the
external fuel tank, space agency officials said on Thursday.

"From an overall standpoint we think really March 4th is
the time frame we are looking at," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's
associate administrator for Space Operations, told a news

The announcement came just a day after some members of an
oversight panel accused the agency of compromising safety in
the rush to return to flight.

NASA is still trying to determine why a large piece of foam
broke off the shuttle Discovery's fuel tank during launch last
month, Gerstenmaier said.

The shuttle Columbia was torn apart when it re-entered
Earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003, after a piece of foam
insulation fell off its tank during launch and damaged its
wing. All seven of Columbia's crewmembers were killed.

The Discovery returned to earth successfully after 14 days
in orbit but NASA is working to make repairs to ensure that the
problem does not happen again.

"Last week we identified the major areas where foam came
off the tank. We are starting to make some sense of the data
... what the mechanism for the foam loss was," Gerstenmaier

Atlantis was scheduled to be the next vehicle to take
supplies to the International Space Station and will not now
have to do back-to-back missions to carry a heavy truss to the
station, said Gerstenmaier, newly appointed to direct NASA's
return to human space flight.


NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the space agency
was taking a careful approach.

"I have changed the game on shuttle thinking," Griffin told
the news conference.

"We are not trying to get a specific number of flights out
of the shuttle system," he added.

"We are working toward an expeditious but orderly
retirement of the shuttle system over the next five years. We
are going to use the shuttle system between now and then to
assemble the space station."

During Discovery's mission, Gerstenmaier said the outpost
has enough food, water and other critical supplies to last
through the end of the year.

Russia will continue to fly cargo and crews to the station,
although only the shuttle can carry the big pieces needed to
finish it.

Griffin said NASA made a big mistake in not looking at the
foam issue sooner. Members of a panel examining NASA'S response
to safety recommendations made after the Columbia disaster said
on Wednesday that some of the problems still existed.

"We in NASA didn't look in detail at foam shedding from the
tank for 113 flights and shame on us," Griffin said.

"Absolutely everyone in and out of NASA learned a lesson, I
hope, from that."

The loss of a chunk of foam during Discovery's launch was
"embarrassing," Griffin said.

Griffin said he had authorized the inclusion of the
critical minority comments in the oversight report.

"Because frankly I think as NASA we do a disservice to
ourselves and to our stakeholders, and frankly to taxpayers, by
creating an appearance that we do not wish to hear what people
have to say if it should be negative," he said.

NASA said Discovery will begin its flight back to its home
port, the Kennedy Space Center, on Friday atop a modified
Boeing 747 aircraft. The shuttle has been at Edwards Air Force
Base in California since returning from its mission last week.