NASA stops shuttle flights until hazard fixed
NASA said Wednesday it is grounding future shuttle flights because foam debris that brought down Columbia is still a risk ¡ª and might have doomed Discovery if the big chunk of broken insulation had come off just a bit earlier and slammed into the spacecraft, reported Associated Press.
A large chunk of foam flew off Discovery's external fuel tank just two minutes after liftoff Tuesday morning. Shuttle managers do not believe it hit the shuttle, posing a threat to the seven astronauts when they return to Earth. But they plan a closer inspection of the spacecraft to be sure.
The loss of a chunk of debris, a vexing problem NASA thought had been fixed, represents a tremendous setback to a space program that has spent 2 1/2 years and over $1 billion trying to make the 20-year-old shuttles safe to fly.
"We wont be able to fly again," until the hazard is removed, Parsons told reporters in a briefing Wednesday evening. "Obviously we have some more work to do."
Parsons said, "Call it luck or whatever, it didn't harm the orbiter." If the foam had broken away earlier in flight, when the atmosphere is thicker, it could have caused catastrophic damage to Discovery.
Engineers believe the foam was 24 to 33 inches long, 10 to 14 inches wide, and just a few inches thick, only somewhat smaller than the chunk that smashed into Columbia's left wing during liftoff in January 2003.
NASA has said all along that Discovery's mission was a test flight designed to check the safety of future shuttle missions. Parsons refused to give up on the spacecraft that was designed in the 1970s.
"We think we can make this vehicle safe for the next flight," he said, declining to judge the long-term impact on the manned space program. "We will determine if it's safe to fly."
"Until we're ready, we won't go fly again," Parsons said.
In less than 36 hours, the euphoria of what initially looked like a picture-perfect launch on Tuesday evaporated thanks to images shot from just a few of the 100-plus cameras in place to watch for the very problem NASA announced.