NASA to launch Discovery despite crack in insulation foam

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Space Shuttle Discovery is rolled out to the pad, for mission STS-121.

NASA officials decided late Monday to go ahead with the planned launch at 2:38 p.m. EDT on July 4 of the space shuttle Discovery. The launch, from Cape Canaveral in Florida, had previously been delayed twice due to poor weather conditions. The expected 13-day mission has been described as critical to the future of the International Space Station (ISS) as well as the shuttle and the entire NASA fleet.

There were concerns over a 5" by 1/2" crack in the insulation foam that was found late last night. NASA officials dismissed the crack saying it was less than the size required to cause damage at launch.

The Discovery mission is to deliver critical supplies to the ISS, test shuttle-inspection techniques and to drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter for his 6-month stay in the ISS.

Over the last three years, NASA has spent an estimated $1.3 billion to remedy the foam problem. When asked about the foam concern, NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said, "We're about the same risk as we were before ... I don't think we're taking any additional risks." Officials have said that they expect foam to fall during the launch though. A few senior NASA safety and technical officers have their voiced opposition to the launch, claiming that they need more time to work on the foam-shedding problem. Foam debris coming loose was the cause of the Columbia disaster in 2003.

It is widely expected that another major problem with the launch would lead to the entire NASA fleet being grounded. A grounded fleet, in turn, will put the $100 billion International Space Station in a difficult situation, since the shuttle has been the major means of delivering supplies to it.

This mission is to be one of the last few flights of the space shuttle Discovery, which is set to retire in 2010.