NASA to make decision on testing shuttle-repair techniques in flight

Launch of Discovery scheduled for May

February 11, 2005|By Michael Cabbage | Michael Cabbage,ORLANDO SENTINEL

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA is expected to decide by next week which, if any, shuttle-repair techniques astronauts will test during Discovery's planned return to flight in May.

Program managers are evaluating five potential repairs for the thermal protection system that shields the spaceship during its fiery plunge through Earth's atmosphere.

Three of the repairs are for the heat tiles that primarily cover the shuttle's belly. Two are for the reinforced carbon-carbon, or RCC, material that protects the leading edges of the wings and other surfaces from temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

A debate has raged inside the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in recent weeks over which of the repairs to test on Discovery and whether to test any of them in orbit. Discovery's commander, Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, told reporters during a briefing yesterday at the Kennedy Space Center that a decision is expected after a key meeting in Houston this week.

"We will fly something," said Collins, who was at the Kennedy Space Center with her crew to check equipment for their flight.

Having the ability to inspect and repair the shuttle in space has been an important issue since Columbia broke up over Texas in February 2003, killing seven astronauts.

The accident was caused by a suitcase-size chunk of foam insulation that broke free from the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch and punched a hole in a panel on the ship's left wing.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended that NASA develop a method of repairing the shuttle in orbit before resuming launches.

But progress has been slow. There is concern among some engineers and astronauts that the repair techniques aren't far enough along to risk testing them in orbit.

NASA managers may decide to have Discovery's crew evaluate some of the repairs during a spacewalk or in the weightless conditions inside the shuttle. But the techniques might be for use only in an emergency.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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