WASHINGTON — NASA says a September launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis is unlikely now that a week of intensive troubleshooting failed to identify “any immediate easy fixes” to the foam shedding problems seen during Discovery’s July 26 launch.
About two minutes into Discovery’s July 26 liftoff, a large chunk of insulating foam peeled away from the shuttle’s external fuel tank, missing the orbiter, but setting back NASA’s efforts to resume construction of the International Space Station (ISS).
All told, Discovery’s external tank shed larger than expected pieces of foam from five separate areas, some of which NASA thought it had managed to fix in the two and a half years since an errant chunk of foam led to the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia during its return to Earth on February 1, 2003.
NASA’s three remaining shuttle orbiters are grounded until the foam problem is resolved.
Bill Gerstenmaier, the senior NASA official leading the investigation into Discovery’s foam loss incidents, said Thursday that engineers so far have found no solutions to the problem.
“We didn’t find any immediate easy fixes here,” Gerstenmaier said during a teleconference with reporters. He said least some tank modifications appear necessary before NASA can fly the shuttle again.
NASA officials had been holding out hope of resolving the foam issues in time to launch before the end of September. But Gerstenmaier said that no longer appears realistic, given that at least some of parts of Atlantis’ tank will require “minor engineering modifications” before the shuttle can be cleared for flight.
“We will probably not make the September launch window,” he said.
NASA’s next opportunity comes in November. Gerstenmaier said should Atlantis be ready to fly by then, NASA would remain on track for resuming construction of the ISS come March.
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