President backs hold on shuttle flights

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush supports NASA’s decision to ground future shuttle flights until experts can learn more about why a piece of insulating foam fell off Discovery during liftoff.

“I think the culture at NASA is one that is focused on safety, first and foremost,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday. “The experts at NASA are making the decisions that they feel are best as we move forward.”

Discovery was the first shuttle to return to orbit in the two and a half years since Columbia broke apart over Texas as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003. All seven astronauts aboard died.

Discovery docked at the international space station on Thursday, a day after NASA decided to ground future shuttle flights. The decision was made because a chunk of insulating foam flew off Discovery’s fuel tank during liftoff — as it did in Columbia’s doomed mission.

The space agency believed it had solved problems associated with the foam on the external fuel tank, but learned Wednesday that it was wrong. The foam prevents the formation of ice on the fuel tank.

“They’re continuing to look at all the data, and so I’m not going to try to draw conclusions at this point,” McClellan said. “They’re looking at all that data, and they took a precaution that they thought was necessary. And we support the decisions that they’re making.”

The three remaining shuttles are due to retire in 2010, and a new spacecraft is in the works.  Bush has a lofty plan for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and eventually to Mars. It’s unclear how the latest grounding might affect public sentiment for the space program.