Wednesday, July 27, 2005


SPACE CENTER, Houston - NASA said Wednesday it is grounding future shuttle flights because foam debris that brought down Columbia is still a risk — and might have doomed Discovery if the big chunk of broken insulation had come off just a bit earlier and slammed into the spacecraft.

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. "You have to admit when you're wrong. We were wrong," said shuttle program manager Bill Parsons. "We need to do some work here, and so we're telling you right now, that the ... foam should not have come off. It came off. We've got to go do something about that."

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.

Image that led NASA to this decision:
--View High-Resolution Version here.

Initial analysis of the imagery shows a large piece of foam separated from an area of the tank called the Protuberance Air Load (PAL) Ramp during the shuttle's ascent to orbit. This debris did not impact Discovery. The area of missing foam on the tank is indicated by a light spot, center, just below the liquid oxygen feedline.