Space Shuttle Trouble
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RAY SUAREZ: After their early morning rendezvous with the international space station today, Discovery’s crew was busy inspecting the shuttle for possible damage.
And NASA officials back on Earth were hard at work trying to figure out what caused a piece of insulating foam to break loose from Discovery’s fuel tank during liftoff two days ago.
The problem with the foam led NASA officials to make a stunning decision yesterday: All future shuttle lights will be grounded until the problem is fixed.
Two and a half years ago, it was a problem with the insulating foam that ultimately doomed the Columbia shuttle. A flying chunk of fuel tank insulation foam struck the orbiter’s wing at liftoff, damaging a protective tile, overheating the shuttle during re-entry.
At today’s press conference, the managers of the shuttle program said Discovery seemed to have escaped any serious damage. But they were looking at spots or divots where foam broke free — the bipod ramp where the tank attaches to the shuttle and the protuberance air load ramp, also called the pal ramp, designed to minimize air flow around the tank.
JOHN SHANNON: That was some good news, is it looks like all of the foam loss that we had from the tank did not hit the orbiter, obviously the four areas of interest being the bipod ramp divot, the divot behind the bipod ramp, the ice frost ramp and the pal ramp. Three of the four we’re — have pretty high confidence it didn’t touch the orbiter.
RAY SUAREZ: The update came after NASA engineers had their first look at more photos of Discovery, some the craft took of itself, and others snapped by the international space station. They’re using the photos to see whether Discovery suffered any damage during its flight.
NASA engineers said that had the foam broken off earlier in different atmospheric conditions, it could have damaged Discovery in a manner similar to Columbia. Since the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA has spent about a billion dollars making the shuttle safer and focused on resigning the fuel tank, and on extensively testing and reapplying the foam that surrounds the tank. Mission managers said today they now realize there’s more work to be done to correct the problem.
JOHN SHANNON: The thing that really concerns us is the pal ramp loss; that there was a very large piece of foam and that is clearly unacceptable and that clearly has to go be fixed. But many areas of the tank performed much better than they had in the past.
REPORTER: If there is a problem, inherent problem with the tanks, is it worth going forward, or should we just wait for the next generation of spacecraft?
JOHN SHANNON: You know, my opinion on that is that the design on this tank, this is an iterative process, that like I said we have fixed a significant number of areas on the tank.
We did not think the pal ramp was a problem at all. We have now found out differently and we’re going to fix that piece as well. So I think with the flight history that we have on the tank and the work that we’re doing that we can get the tank in good shape to go fly again.
RAY SUAREZ: Today, Discovery’s astronauts unpacked a new extra-long boom arm equipped with a camera and laser inspection device to check the wings for damage. The shuttle is expected to remain docked at the international space station for a week before returning with its crew to Earth on Aug. 7.
For more now on NASA’s decision and the future of the shuttle we get two views from Keith Cowing, editor of NASAwatch.com, an online space news publication; and Alex Roland, professor of history at Duke University and NASA historian.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Roland, given NASA’s and the shuttle’s reason history, how serious a decision was this today to ground the program indefinitely?
ALEX ROLAND: I think it’s about as serious as it can get; short of another accident, this is about the worst thing that could have happened on this launch for the reason that this was exactly the problem, the shedding of this insulation that caused the last accident and that NASA has been studying and working on for two and a half years. And it’s hard to imagine the circumstance after two and a half years and more than a billion dollars of expense.
They’ve told us the shuttle was safe to fly, and it’s not. What are they going to tell us next time? If they try to fix this and come back and tell us that now it’s really safe to fly, do they have any credibility left?
RAY SUAREZ: Keith Cowing, about the worst that can happen, do you see it the same way?
KEITH COWING: It wasn’t the thing that everybody wanted to have happen. It probably — yeah, the worst thing that could happen, but, you know, I don’t think that’s the end of the discussion here; that there are other options ahead.
They had thought of looking at certain fixes, they had decided that the pal ramp was something that they didn’t want to mess with just yet. There already some ideas and there had been some thought as to how to deal with that. So it may well be that the fix that needs to be put into place will be straightforward, but, again, you know, they have spent a lot money on this and it’s very disappointing that it didn’t work better than it did.
RAY SUAREZ: The accident inquest that was carried on after the Columbia disaster recommended getting rid of the foam insulation altogether. How come this latest design was heading up into space using the same thing?
KEITH COWING: Well, this take is sort of a legacy to the way that the system is designed, and in order to get rid of the foam you’d have to come up with another insulating mechanism; whether that would be a metallic one, you would have to totally redesign the way the tank is built and that was something that NASA didn’t really see as within the scope of what it should do, rather felt that it could take the foam, fix it, make it more reliable, or at least have less foam come off, but again that doesn’t seem to be what happened.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, just a short time ago, NASA began its latest briefing and mentioned that now, reviewing its data, it realizes that a second piece of foam broke off during the launch as well and just luckily didn’t have the kind of momentum that would have caused severe damage.
It did hit the wing, they think, but didn’t have sufficient momentum to cause damage. A serious finding?
KEITH COWING: Oh, yes, if it hit the wing early enough, that could be a problem. Again, this was happening as I was in the studio here, so I haven’t heard exactly what they said, but again, you know, the shuttle system has always been shedding foam and everybody will stipulate to the obvious there.
You’ve got more cameras than you ever had, so you’re probably seeing things that you never saw before, but foam coming off and hitting the orbiter in any way is a serious thing and it shouldn’t be ignored.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Roland, is this another step towards ending the shuttle program entirely?
ALEX ROLAND: That is one option that I think needs to be seriously considered. According to President Bush — and NASA has embraced his recommendations — we’re flying the shuttle only to complete the space station, and we don’t really want the space station, we don’t have any use for it.
So it seems like the price is too high to keep flying the shuttle just to complete an enterprise that we don’t want any more. There is, however, another option. If NASA feels that it wants to keep flying the shuttle to continue work on the space station, they could fly it unmanned. We don’t have to have astronauts on it, our astronauts could go up and do their work on the Russian launch vehicle, which has a much better safety record.
RAY SUAREZ: But if the NASA team was to take up that suggestion of flying it unmanned, wouldn’t it still have to address the current design problems with the foam and with the insulation on the fuel tank?
ALEX ROLAND: Yes, there’s always going to be a certain amount of risk with any launch vehicle, even so-called “man rated” vehicles, that is vehicles that have gone through the extra scrutiny and qualifications to fly people aboard.
But if the people aren’t there, you can afford to take more of a risk, that is if we lose the shuttle on a future flight trying to service the space station, then all we’ve lost is the spacecraft itself and it’s the spacecraft that’s headed towards retirement in any event.
I think the greatest risk is continuing to fly astronauts on the shuttle when NASA cannot guarantee us that it’s safe.
RAY SUAREZ: What exactly, Keith Cowing, are the space shuttles continuing to fly for?
KEITH COWING: Well, first I would dispute — when Professor Roland says we don’t need the space station, I’d love to know who the “we” is, because the Congress is behind it; the American people are behind it, the White House is behind it.
Clearly the station as it was designed was designed to be built with the space shuttle. The elements were designed to be launched on the space shuttle and if you were to suddenly say, well, we don’t want to use the shuttle any more, we’re going to launch it on expendable rockets, you’d have to completely redesign these things to be launched again, and the issue of cost comes up.
But in terms of the future of the shuttle and the space station, there have been discussions underway at NASA where you might take — he talks about flying it unmanned — of taking shuttle drive launch vehicles, where you have to take the orbiter out of the situation, you put in a payload shroud, and then you start launching your hardware up without people on board, and building a new vehicle, the correct vehicle, which in many ways would be like the old, more reliable Apollo system, which are similar to the Russian systems, but to say that the space station is not wanted by anybody, I would just love to see where he’s getting his facts and where he’s getting his information.
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, Professor.
ALEX ROLAND: The answer is President Bush. This is his January 2004 speech; he said, we’ll stop flying the shuttle in 2010; that will complete the space station by 2016; we will be done with it, and we will retire it.
Are we spending these 20, 25 years to build a space station that we’re only going to use for six years? It doesn’t seem worth it.
KEITH COWING: The space station has been used for four or five years already, so it’s not just six years, and if you read the wording carefully, it doesn’t say they’re going to walk away from it; there may be other uses for it.
So I don’t think the U.S. is going to walk away from the space station; the president hasn’t said that.
RAY SUAREZ: But can the mission to complete the space station be fulfilled if right now you’ve got a 2010 deadline for ending flying shuttles but now another delay in getting back on the schedule of getting them up and back?
KEITH COWING: It will be very difficult. And again, it’s sort of the meaning of what is completion. We have — the United States has some treaty commitments with Japan and the European nations as to what the space station would look like, and originally it was thought to be some 20 to 30 flights required to do that. The White House doesn’t want to fly the shuttle more than 10 or 12, 15 times.
Clearly, if you’d have a fewer number of shuttle flights and you have a configuration that you’ve agreed to, there’s a mismatch and there’s clearly going to be some diplomatic discussions as to what the U.S. will be able to put to the table and whether that’s acceptable to our international partners on the station program.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, do you think this jeopardizes the future of the international space station?
ALEX ROLAND: Well, I think the future of the international space station is already settled, that is that most people believe that the shuttle and the space station are not our future in space.
And the president, again, said in his 2004 speech that we’re moving beyond it; we’re going to fly out this string and then put these behind us. I think the sooner we put them behind us the better off we’ll all be.
RAY SUAREZ: But Keith Cowing mentioned international treaty commitments. Now, doesn’t that risk leaving the European Space Agency, the Japanese and others in the lurch, the Russians?
ALEX ROLAND: Those international treaty agreements were a creation of NASA to help insulate the space station from cancellation, so this is a monster of our own creation, and I think we ought to simply admit that we cannot safely do this, get out of the commitment, and if our partners want to continue building the station, we ought to make arrangements to allow them to do that.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Keith Cowing, you gentlemen’s conversation has taken on a very — taken a very dire turn. Isn’t there also the possibility that there are shorter-term fixes for the shuttle as it exists, so that it can at least get close to running on schedule?
KEITH COWING: I think you’ll know in the next day or so whether they think the pal ramp on the side there, if they can do a quick fix for that, I — you know, there’s no shortage of opinions as to what the problem is, but clearly they just found another foam detachment, you know, we don’t have all the data yet, but clearly the shuttle’s days are numbered.
The White House has said that they want to retire the shuttle and clearly there’s “x” number of flights that are going to be supported. But, again, you know, it does go back to the issue of why we do this in the first place, and I just totally reject the notion that we would turn our tail and run away from something and let other nations do it; it’s just contrary to the way America has done stuff.
And it’s astonishing that an historian would look at this feat of exploration as something we should run away from when human history is filled with challenges like this. And, you know, I don’t think that the story has been completed yet, and I think time will tell.
I do know that there are some Senate Democrats now who are looking for an opportunity to perhaps try and kill the shuttle program. So, you know, clearly this is going to be a debate that’s going rise to the level of the sort of discussion that the professor and I have had here tonight.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, very quickly, the last word, how do you respond to Keith Cowing?
ALEX ROLAND: History is full of challenges, and we’ve tried to meet this challenge with the shuttle and the space station. Both have been disastrous failures. It’s time to move on.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Keith Cowing, good to see you both.
ALEX ROLAND: Thank you.