Next Shuttle Launch Delayed Until March 2006
WASHINGTON — 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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