Discovery Orbits While the Shuttle Fleet is Grounded

Thursday, July 28 2005 @ 09:00 pm EDT

Contributed by: bobmoody

When space shuttle Discovery blasted into orbit on July 26th, newly installed cameras detected another chunk of foam insulation breaking off from the main fuel tank yet again. After a billion dollar retrofitting of the main tank and hundreds of new upgrades to the shuttle fleet, that wasn't supposed to happen again. But because of that one piece being caught on camera as it fell away harmlessly without striking the orbiter, the entire fleet of remaining shuttles are once again grounded... indefinitely!

Shuttle Discovery launches at 10:39 a.m. Tuesday morning. It is now linked-up to the International Space Station "Freedom". Discovery is scheduled to return to Earth in the first week of August.
The most complicated machine yet conceived by man has more problems. Technically, it's not the orbiter that has the problem, but the totally redesigned main fuel tank that the orbiter depends on to reach space. Once again, the foam insulation on the tank failed to perform to required specifications. Scores of new cameras positioned to catch exactly this sort of thing did work perfectly and recorded a small piece of the sprayed-on foam coating falling off the fuel tank after the craft had blasted into the upper atmosphere on its way to space. That is exactly the same problem that was supposed to have been fixed which caused the catastrophic failure of the shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. That accident cost the lives of seven astronauts.

Construction of the ISS "Freedom" is not complete and the space shuttles are the only type of spacecraft available to finish the job.
When the piece of foam came off and hit the leading edge of the left wing of Columbia during its liftoff in 2003, it opened a hole in the high-tech Reinforced Carbon-Carbon fiber material that allows the shuttle to safely return to Earth. That material is made to withstand temperatures of more than 4,000 degrees along the leading edges of the shuttles wings and nose section. With a hole possibly as large as a basketball in that area of Columbia's wing, superheated air moving at hypersonic speed invaded the interior portions of the wing and, in effect, acted as a blow torch to slice off that wing and destroy the Columbia and her crew.

This malfunctioning of the foam was never supposed to repeat itself, but as the cameras clearly show, it did.

The shuttle Discovery and her current crew of seven astronauts are safe and in route to dock with the International Space Station "Freedom". They'll deliver much needed supplies to the station, and repair a malfunctioning gyroscope that helps the station maneuver properly. On one of the three planned "space walks" or EVA's scheduled to accomplish these chores, the astronauts will try some newly devised proceedures to repair any tile damage that could potentially cause the destruction of the Discovery. Such repairs must be possible in the future in order to assure the safe return to whichever potentially damaged orbiting shuttle may be returning to Earth. Re-entry is the most dangerous portion of ANY spaceflight, and the type of accident that claimed Columbia was inevitable sooner or later.

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There is also a device mounted on the end of the shuttle's 100-foot-long manipulator arm which houses a hi-resolution camera and lasers to detect any damage that could endanger the shuttle. The preliminary inspection using this device could find no serious damage even though small bits of heat tiles were also seen chipping away from around the front wheel well during ascent at about the same time as the foam chunk broke away.

The jettisoned main fuel tank of shuttle Discovery as seen from one of the newly installed cameras on the orbiter.
More inspection will be required to determine the level of danger associated with this potential problem.

Still, it doesn't matter what is found or what may yet be determined by closer inspections of the shuttle's outer skin. NASA has already grounded the rest of the shuttle fleet solely because of the foam that broke away during this latest launch. This is a problem that must never, ever be allowed for future launches because the potential for catastrophic damage to the shuttles from falling foam is too great. NASA wants to play it safe, and personally, I agree with this decision. This problem absolutely MUST be fixed...PERMANENTLY. What will the next few days bring as far as any new danger that might be detected? What damage might be found (however slight) that might jeopardize the safety of the crew?

Enlarged image of the area where the foam broke away from the main fuel tank. (white area)
No one can say just yet, but this may be the most pivotal and dangerous moment in manned spaceflight history since the near loss of the Apollo 13 mission and crew in 1970. NASA is perfectly capable of making the appropriate decisions. The crew is capable of piloting the craft back to a safe landing. As long as the hardware performs as advertised during reentry, this seven person crew should be able to return safely. The most dangerous time in every mission since manned spaceflight began will once again be "in our faces" in just a little over a week. Discovery either will, or will not, return safely to the Earth.

Just as we did during the Apollo 13 mission, the whole world will collectively hold our breath for those 15 minutes or so of that most critical portion in the flight.
Burning brilliantly as though it were a huge meteor entering Earth's upper atmosphere, shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry in February 2003.
The crew's safe return is top priority, then we can turn our attention to the foam problem and get that fixed once and for all. No one ever wants to see images of another shuttle burning and breaking up like a giant meteor as the Columbia did over Texas on February 1, 2003. Too much is at stake not to fix this problem and once again we must return to flight as soon as possible so that the ISS can be finished as planned. Only then can the shuttle fleet be properly decommissioned as planned, while a totally new spacecraft takes its place. Then we can refocus our attention towards a return to the Moon, this time to establish a base; this time to STAY!

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