October 14, 2005

NASA aims for May for next shuttle launch

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NASA aims to launch the next space
shuttle in May 2006, after fixing a persistent problem with
falling debris -- the same problem that doomed shuttle Columbia
and grounded the remaining three-ship fleet.

The timing of any return to flight depends on how fast
NASA's hurricane-damaged Michoud plan in New Orleans can get
back to full strength, space agency officials said. The
shuttles' massive external tanks are assembled at Michoud, and
at this point only 25 percent of employees are working.

"It appears that the May launch window is something that we
can begin to work toward now," said Wayne Hale, the shuttle
program manager.

That window runs from May 3 to May 23, he said, stressing
that the flight has not been officially scheduled. NASA had
earlier suggested a March launch would be possible.

The shuttles have been grounded since August, after a large
chunk of foam insulation fell from Discovery's external tank
during launch.

The falling foam caused no damage to Discovery, the first
shuttle to launch since Columbia's fatal flight in 2003.

It was particularly disappointing to NASA, which has spent
$1.5 billion to limit this kind of potentially damaging debris.
The same kind of falling foam struck Columbia's wing seconds
after launch, ultimately causing the ship to break apart on
re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.

Richard Gilbrech, head of a NASA team working to find out
what caused the foam to drop from Discovery's tank, said one
likely cause was repeated contact with the foam by workers
during assembly, though he said there was no evidence of


The foam dropped from a part of the tank known as the PAL
ramp, and Gilbrech noted that an improved foam insulation was
sprayed on the front section of the ramp, but not on the rear
section -- which was the source of the falling foam chunk.

The external tank slated to boost the next shuttle into
orbit is now at the Michoud assembly plant, where the biggest
hindrance to shuttle-related work has been damage to roads,
infrastructure and workers' homes.

"We will have lost equivalent of three months' work based
on the effects of hurricanes," Hale said.

With 500 workers now at the plant, Hale said the full
workforce of about 2,000 would be on the job by December.

The shuttle fleet is scheduled to retire in 2010, to be
replaced by a new Apollo-like capsule-and-rocket system meant
to take Americans back to the Moon. This deadline prompted NASA
to cut back on the number of shuttle flights sent to the
International Space Station.

Formerly, NASA had said the minimum number of shuttle
flights needed to construct the orbiting station was 28; now,
that number has been reduced to 18, plus another flight to
repair the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

Discovery's flight and the possible May flight are
considered test missions and involve no construction on the
station. Crew and supplies are being ferried by Russian space