September 30, 2005

Insulation problem probably will delay next shuttle

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA plans to push back
its target for launching the next space shuttle from March to
May as it tries to fix a problem with insulating foam that
falls off the spacecraft's fuel tank, officials said on Friday.

The agency had been hoping to resume flights in March but
technical issues with the tanks, coupled with work
interruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina, likely will delay
launches until later in the spring, officials said.

Foam falling off the shuttle's external fuel tanks has been
a problem for years but until shuttle Columbia's disintegration
in February 2003, the U.S. space agency did not stop flying the
fleet to fix the problem.

A chunk of foam that fell from the tank during Columbia's
launch hit and damaged the ship's wing, causing it to break up
and kill seven astronauts as it was coming in to land.

NASA spent more than $1.5 billion fixing the tank and
implementing other safety upgrades. But the foam problem
reappeared during Discovery's launch on July 26 on NASA's first
shuttle flight since the Columbia accident, prompting the
agency to ground the fleet.

The panel investigating the foam loss on Discovery's tank
is nearing completion of its work and is expected to report its
findings next week, said Martin Jensen, a spokesman at NASA's
Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Jensen said inadvertent damage by workers was among the
possible reasons for large pieces of foam falling from
Discovery's tank.

"In preparing it for flight we had considerable amount of
rework (on the tank)," he said. "Any time you're working on it,
there's just the chance that something else could happen."

NASA managers have decided to make adjustments to the
tanks. Technicians will remove and replace foam that provides a
smooth, aerodynamic surface covering cables and pressurization
lines on the outside of the tanks.

In his first meeting as head of the shuttle program, Wayne
Hale on Thursday asked his team to assess what work will need
to be complete to have the next two shuttles ready to fly in
May and July, Johnson Space Center spokesman Kyle Herring said.

"He made it clear that those are working dates," Herring

One of the two fuel tanks being prepared for flight at the
Kennedy Space Center in Florida has been shipped back to NASA's
Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for additional work.
The plant, operated by Lockheed Martin Corp., has been shut
down for more than a month due to Hurricane Katrina but was
expected to reopen for limited work next week.