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NASA focuses on flaw in shuttle tank’s foam

As Discovery prepares to undock from the space station, investigators back on Earth are looking into repair records that may reveal the source of the shuttle's debris problem.
The International Space Station's Canada
The international space station's robotic arm, center, grapples the canlike Raffaello cargo module, at left, in preparation for removing it from the station and putting it in the shuttle Discovery's cargo bay on Friday. A Soyuz escape capsule can be seen in the background.Nasa-tv / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

NASA is investigating whether repairs to a small crack in the foam on Discovery’s fuel tank may have caused a 1-pound (450-gram) section of the insulation to break off during liftoff, officials said late Friday.

The shallow crack — just six-tenths of an inch (1.5 centimeters) long and two-tenths of an inch (5 millimeters) wide — was sanded away at the Louisiana manufacturing plant before the tank was shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. No new foam was applied to the spot.

It’s a common repair procedure, NASA officials said.

What’s intriguing, officials said, is that the repair was made to the approximate area where the big chunk of foam came loose during Discovery’s launch on July 26. They cautioned, however, that there is no evidence yet that the repair contributed to the foam loss.

The external fuel tank was redesigned following the 2003 Columbia tragedy, but no improvements were made to the area where the foam came loose. Lockheed Martin Corp. built the tank at its Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Unlike with Columbia, which was smacked in the wing by foam that broke off during liftoff, this large chunk of foam missed Discovery. Nonetheless, NASA has suspended all future space shuttle flights until the problem is resolved.

Many theories investigated
Among the many theories being investigated, besides the crack: whether a mistake was made in the manual spraying of the foam, whether the new environmentally friendlier foam that was used in that area was defective, whether too many people handled the foam and tank, and whether the foam was damaged during the tank’s shipment to Florida.

Space station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier, who is heading up the investigation, said he expects to get his first technical briefing on the matter Tuesday.

The tank lost four or so pieces of foam that were bigger than NASA wanted to come off.

“The amazing thing is — well, not amazing, but the good thing is almost all of the tank changes worked. Some didn’t,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said earlier Friday. “So what’s the difference between the ones that did and the ones that didn’t?”

The earliest that the next shuttle could launch is Sept. 22, but that’s only “if next week, the guys have a eureka moment on the foam and spot why this big chunk came off,” Griffin said.

Many speculate it could be next year before another shuttle flies, if the cause proves elusive.

Trash pickup, then undocking
The space shuttle, meanwhile, made a long-overdue trash pickup at the international space station on Friday — the first in 2½ years.

The Discovery astronauts hoisted a giant garbage can holding 5,000 pounds of broken machines, discarded equipment, empty food cartons and other junk into the shuttle’s cargo hold.

It was one of the last chores before the shuttle pulls away from the station after more than a week of linked flight, on Saturday.

The two space station occupants were glad to get rid of the stuff since it left them with a much tidier home. One of them, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, said before Discovery arrived that the place looked as messy as Russia’s old Mir station.

The Columbia disaster in early 2003 had prevented shuttles from returning to the space station until now, forcing the resident crews to rely on the much smaller and less frequent Russian supply ships for garbage disposal.

The shuttle’s latest grounding could mean another trash pileup.

Tedious task
Discovery took up some 3,000 pounds of badly needed station supplies like prepackaged meals and spare parts in the massive canister. Once it was attached to the space station and emptied, it was filled to capacity with all the discarded station objects and placed back aboard the shuttle, with the help of a robot arm.

Everything had to be bagged or tied down just so for the shaky ride down through the atmosphere on Monday.

A call from Mission Control went unanswered for a few minutes as the astronauts stepped through the tedious job. “Sorry to ignore you,” astronaut Stephen Robinson radioed as the crew secured items in large white bags. “We all have our heads down in bags.”

The shuttle astronauts also put away the inspection boom that they used during their 13-day mission to survey Discovery’s thermal skin, in a hunt for any launch damage.