NASA seeks methods to repair shuttles in flight
NASA is hoping techniques that would enable a crew to repair damages to a space shuttle in flight will be ready for the shuttle's planned May 2005 return to space, officials with the agency said on Monday.
The shuttle's launch, which has been delayed several times, would be the first flight since the Columbia broke apart as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere in February, 2003.
That disaster, which killed the seven astronauts aboard the shuttle and rained debris down on east Texas, was caused by cracks in the protective tiles that were struck by a piece of foam during the shuttle's launch.
NASA hopes that closer in-flight inspections and repairs -- once thought impossible -- could prevent a repeat of that incident.
"It still is a challenge in front of us. We still have a long way to go," Bill Parsons, space shuttle program manager, told a news conference.
NASA will use new sensors that could detect potential problems and has been developing materials and procedures to repair the tiles and reinforced carbon panels during flight.
However, the launch of Discovery, currently planned for between May 12 to June 2, 2005, would not be delayed if those techniques were not perfected.
"I think in a state of emergency we would have a technique we would be ready to put forth," Parsons said.
Since the Columbia disaster, NASA has altered the launch vehicle that propels the shuttle off the launch pad and out of the Earth's atmosphere in order to reduce the debris shed by the craft.
New techniques for applying foam to the launch vehicle have reduced the size of debris that can break off to no larger than 0.008 pound, well below the 0.03 pound threshold that can cause damage to the shuttle, Wayne Hale, the deputy program manager, told the press conference.
The piece of debris blamed for damaging the Columbia's tiles weighed more than one pound.
The latest delay to the shuttle's launch was blamed on several lost work days because of the four hurricanes that buffeted Florida and the Kennedy Space Center there.
NASA officials said they were hopeful they would be ready for the May launch window but would not proceed unless they were certain the preparations were adequate.
"We are going to fly when we determine the vehicle is ready to fly," Hale said. "We're not going to succumb to some kind of emotional schedule pressure because we picked a date and ringed it on a calendar and we think our reputation depends on launching on that date."