Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Shuttle Grounded!

(Via Fox News)

SPACE CENTER, Houston — NASA said Wednesday it is grounding future shuttle flights because foam debris that brought down Columbia is still a risk — and might have doomed Discovery if the big chunk of broken insulation had come off just a bit earlier and slammed into the spacecraft.

A large chunk of foam flew off Shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank just two minutes after liftoff Tuesday morning. Shuttle managers do not believe it hit the shuttle, posing a threat to the seven astronauts when they return to Earth. But they plan a closer inspection of the spacecraft to be sure.

"You have to admit when you're wrong. We were wrong," said shuttle program manager Bill Parsons. "We need to do some work here, and so we're telling you right now, that the ... foam should not have come off. It came off. We've got to go do something about that."

This is too bad! What had been viewed as a picture perfect and flawless launch, has now been tarnished by another piece of thermal insulation from the external tank.

Parsons said, "Call it luck or whatever, it didn't harm the orbiter." If the foam had broken away earlier in flight, when the atmosphere is thicker, it could have caused catastrophic damage to Discovery.

"We think that would have been really bad, so it's not acceptable," said Parsons' deputy, Wayne Hale.

Engineers believe the foam was 24 to 33 inches long, 10 to 14 inches wide, and just a few inches thick, only somewhat smaller than the chunk that smashed into Columbia's left wing during liftoff in January 2003.

In my opinion, NASA is doing the right thing by going ahead and making the decision now to indefinitely ground flights until the problem is resolved. Unfortunately, no matter how successful the rest of the mission is, it will no doubt be treated as a failure by a lot of folks in the media and the blame game will begin in earnest. I imagine you can also expect wall-to-wall coverage from the media of the potential doom that awaits the seven astronauts when they attempt reentry. I certainly hope that doesn't happen.

I won't buy into all of the hype and I hope it is short lived. NASA has been sending humans into space since Alan B. Shepard in 1961, and they've had an incredible record of success during that time span. The Challenger and Columbia disasters were indeed tragic, but also rare considering the great risks inherent in space flight. The astronauts know these risks and accept them as part of the job.

NASA was prepared for this flight and had cameras in place to capture all angles from launch to orbit insertion. They have the data available to assess whether or not the shuttle was damaged, and with all eyes on them, I don't believe they have any reason to be less than forthcoming. If NASA says the orbiter has not been damaged, I have a tendency to believe them.

My thoughts and prayers will be with the seven astronauts during this mission and until they are safely returned to Earth. I have no doubt in my mind that they will do just that!

Also linked at Mudville Gazette and Outside the Beltway.


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