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Foam dilemma helps delay next NASA shuttle launch

August 18, 2005

By Maggie Fox

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – NASA will delay the next launch of a
space shuttle until March 2006 in part 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
conference.

NASA made the announcement a day after a report on its
response to safety recommendations made after the 2003 Columbia
disaster said some of the problems still existed.

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.

Gerstenmaier said the agency was still trying to determine
why a large piece of foam broke off the shuttle Discovery’s
fuel tank during launch last month.

The Discovery returned to earth safely 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
said.

The delay will also allow a more efficient use of the
shuttles Atlantis and Discovery in servicing the International
Space Station, said Gerstenmaier, newly appointed to direct
NASA’s return to human space flight.

Atlantis was scheduled to be the next vehicle to fly, but
would have had to make back-to-back missions to carry a heavy
truss to the station. Now it can alternate with Discovery,
Gerstenmaier said.

CHANGING THE GAME

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the space agency
was not aiming for a specific number of flights.

“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,” he told the news conference.

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.

“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.




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