Enough with Falling Foam, Already!

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July 28, 2005 at 8:25 am

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As eagle-eyed television viewers, and a few newscasters, noted during Tuesday’s launch of Space Shuttle Discovery, another

during lift-off. Falling debris directly led to the loss of

by impacting the Shuttle wing’s leading edge, creating a large hole that was not detected or anticipated.

While Discovery’s mission appears to be going well, NASA says it will not launch any more shuttles until it solves the problem of falling debris during launch. A large chunk of foam broke off

Discovery’s fuel tank during liftoff, but unlike the chunk of foam that doomed Columbia, engineers don’t think any foam hit Discovery. {emphasis mine} — CNN

And more:

The U.S. space agency said flying debris captured on video at Discovery’s launch on Tuesday was too similar to what brought down shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003 and showed that the debris problem was not fixed after 2 1/2 years of work and more than $1 billion in safety expenditures.

[…]

Images showed chunks of foam missing from at least three places on Discovery’s external fuel tank, including one almost as big as the piece that struck Columbia. There are also nicks in the protective tiles on Discovery’s belly. — Reuters

Unlike Columbia !?

It sounds like Columbia all over again, from this vantage point. I guess in NASA-speak, it means “During Columbia’s flight, we didn’t listen to the concerns of engineers and this time we are listening, so this isn’t the same scenario.” But, it ultimately is.

We can’t launch Shuttles if every lift-off encounters falling debris (foam, ice), and the ultimate success or catastrophic failure of the mission rests on the trajectory of falling projectiles. While astronauts know their life’s work is dangerous, and accept a great many risks you and I would/could not, I doubt any would willingly stand in front of a gun and play Russian Roulette.

One of the ’s primary findings was that NASA needed to “initiate an aggressive program to eliminate” falling foam debris before the Shuttle program should to continue.

And yet our first flight since February 2003 results in a large piece of foam shedding the external tank at lift-off.

When engineers redesigned the External Tank, removing excess foam and installing heaters to prevent ice, did they factor in the extended length of time many Shuttles spend on the launch pad prior to flight? Space Shuttle Columbia had been

at Cape Canaveral since June 17th, in anticipation of a late June return to flight date. That’s an extended period of exposure to the elements, and during hurricane season no less!

I understand the complexity (and cost) of de-mating the Shuttle from its booster rockets and external tank, and slowly crawling it the 4 miles back to the Vehicle Assembly Building — at the whopping speed of 1 mph. Understanding that, NASA should be especially cognizant that their vehicle is likely going to sit, unprotected, for weeks or months prior to launch… no doubt weakening the foam. NASA didn’t mention it, but the extended time on the pad is likely what caused a temporary window protection cover to , striking protective shielding tiles on the craft’s tail, tiles which had to be replaced on the pad.

In addition to other findings by the accident investigation board, NASA was charged with doing something about reinforcing or repairing damaged thermal protection tiles in flight. Unfortunately, NASA itself grants that none of the in-flight “patch kits” the astronauts will be testing out on this flight show any real potential for patching a sizable hole such as the one that lost the Shuttle Columbia.

Nevermind that even a fist-sized hole would likely be catastrophic upon re-entry, allowing super-heated gases to lick their way into the Shuttle’s superstructure, incinerating it.

The only good news is at least NASA’s employing better photographic and video imaging of the Shuttle during lift-off, and on orbit via the U.S. Space Station and the Shuttle’s redesigned robot arm. Without that, NASA engineers and the public would be in the dark once again, awaiting landing day only to watch yet another Shuttle burn up on re-entry to Florida. If Discovery was damaged during ascent Tuesday, I’m fairly certain NASA will know that before landing day comes around. But if the Shuttle was damaged, I’m not entirely certain we have the means even 2 years later to address that.

The U.S. Space Station will get mighty cramped if the 7 crew members from Discovery have to move in due to their orbiter being questionable about making a safe re-entry.

Sadly, the option to evacuate to the Space Station did not exist for the Columbia astronauts, even if NASA had understood the debris impact’s adverse affect on the mission’s survivability.

Put simply, NASA cannot lose another Shuttle and crew. And the U.S. Space Station cannot stand to have the Shuttle grounded another 1-2 years. The Space Shuttle (Space Transportation System; STS) is slated to be retired in 2010.

What will the future bring?

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