CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA chief Michael D. Griffin reaffirmed his commitment to the shuttle program yesterday and took personal responsibility for the foam problems that have a put a damper on the Discovery mission.
"I think we're going to fix it in short order, and we're going to get back flying," Griffin said, reacting to the loss of foam from the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch Tuesday. "We don't expect this to be a long, drawn-out affair, to be honest with you."
The administrator also defended the agency's efforts during the past two years to improve the shuttle tank, saying the work was not a failure. He said Discovery has suffered less damage to its fragile heat-protective tiles than most shuttles.
"Discovery is the cleanest bird we've seen," said Griffin in a conference call from Washington.
Aboard the Discovery, astronaut Andrew S.W. Thomas called the foam problem a "huge engineering disappointment."
Thomas was also disappointed "because we know it will now be necessary to keep the shuttles on the ground for a while longer while this problem gets the appropriate attention."
Shuttle commander Eileen M. Collins said she hadn't expected "any large pieces of foam to fall off the external tank. We thought we had that problem licked."
Griffin said inspections have pinpointed about 25 dings on Discovery's tile-covered belly - that's down from the typical 145 that are found on most shuttles after landing, he said.
The damage is caused by pieces of insulating foam that come loose from the shuttle's external tank and ping the orbiter.
It was a large piece of insulation that doomed shuttle Columbia in 2003 after striking the ship on launch and punching a hole in its right wing. Seven astronauts were killed when the shuttle broke apart over Texas after hot gases got inside the wing as it headed for a Florida landing.
For Discovery's launch, a camera on the shuttle tank captured mostly small segments of foam breaking free, but one 0.9-pound chunk also came loose from a section called a PAL ramp.
The cameras show that the debris did not hit the shuttle, and Collins said yesterday that the crew is not deterred by the problem or concerned about the flight home.
"We are staying focused on the mission, and we know that we are in good hands with the people on the ground," the shuttle commander said.
In the years since Columbia, NASA redesigned parts of the tank and changed how foam is applied to reduce the risk of debris coming loose in flight.
It's not clear how long it might take to launch again. NASA deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said NASA has canceled overtime work this weekend on shuttle Atlantis, which was supposed to fly in September.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.