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NASA grounds shuttle fleet as Discovery crew probe for damage

"It is too early," Shannon said when asked if there was a danger to the crew. "I have to understand exactly what we have. We have to walk through the whole process methodically."
by Jean-Louis Santini
Houston (AFP) Jul 27, 2005
NASA said it has grounded the US space shuttle fleet after a large piece of foam insulation was discovered to have broken off from the fuel tank of the Discovery shuttle on liftoff.

NASA's decision came after the crew of Discovery on Wednesday inspected the outside of the shuttle for damage after debris was seen falling off during its landmark launch.

However, the agency stressed that it believes Discovery was not damaged in the incident.

"We didn't expect this to happen and it did ... for us it's a set back ... and until this is closed we won't be ready to fly," said Bill Parsons, space shuttle program manager.

"The fact is it didn't cause any damage to the orbiter that we're aware of at this time. It didn't impact the orbiter at all," Parsons said.

While the US space agency said the foam did not damage the shuttle on Tuesday's launch, Parson's said future flights are on hold until the problem is corrected.

"We are going to go and carry out a thorough evaluation and then we'll determine when it's safe to fly," he added.

Using special cameras and laser scanners, the crew monitored the nose and leading edges on the wings of Discovery in an operation lasting several hours.

What appeared to be a small piece of tile and another larger piece of debris were seen in video images falling off as the shuttle blasted off Tuesday for the first mission since the Columbia disaster in February 2003.

As Columbia's disintegration was blamed on a piece of insulation foam that fell off, NASA is extremely sensitive to any alert over rogue debris.

But it said there was no sign of danger so far. "The engineering community doesn't think that this is going to be a significant issue," shuttle flight director Paul Hill told a briefing earlier Wednesday.

"I expected that we would shed some small tolerable amount of debris," he said, underscoring that in his view "everything is going extremely well."

NASA experts on the ground scanned photos and video images from the launch.

The examination of the wings and the shuttle nose was conducted by a special laser scanner and infrared camera at the end of a 15-meter (50-foot) extension to the shuttle's robotic arm.

NASA wants to clear up any doubts before the shuttle docks with the International Space Station on Thursday.

Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center amid cheers and some tears from ground experts who had been working for two and a half years to get the shuttle back into space.

Earlier NASA flight operations manager John Shannon said the piece of tile was believed to be about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) in size and appeared to have come off the front landing gear.

The origin of the debris shown in a separate video was unknown but it appeared to fall away without touching the shuttle as the booster rockets broke away.

"We are going frame by frame through the imagery," Shannon said.

NASA quickly alerted Commander Eileen Collins about the debris but there was no immediate sign of concern among the crew, who include Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

As Discovery approaches the space station on Thursday, Collins will turn the orbiter around so the ISS crew can take photographs of its underside to help determine whether the shuttle's thermal protection system suffered any damage.

NASA is concerned about the incident as it revives memories of the Columbia shuttle tragedy in February 2003 in which seven astronauts died.

A piece of insulation foam fell from Columbia's external tank, causing a gash in the wing that allowed superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle.

The shuttle fleet had been grounded since then amid painstaking inquiries into the cause of the disaster and ways to correct the faults.

During the 12-day mission, Discovery will take supplies to the ISS and the crew will perform some risky operations designed to test new safety procedures.

During one of three planned spacewalks on the Discovery, Noguchi and his US counterpart Stephen Robinson will test repair techniques adopted after the Columbia disaster.

earlier related report
Discovery crew inspects shuttle but NASA not concerned
The crew of Discovery on Wednesday inspected the outside of the shuttle for damage after debris was seen falling off during its landmark launch but NASA downplayed concerns.

Using special cameras and laser scanners, the crew monitored the nose and leading edges on the wings of Discovery in an operation lasting several hours.

What appeared to be a small piece of tile and another larger piece of debris were seen in video images falling off as the shuttle blasted off Tuesday for the first mission since the Columbia disaster in February 2003.

As Columbia's disintegration was blamed on a piece of insulation foam that fell off, NASA is extremely sensitive to any alert with the shuttle.

But it said there was no sign of danger so far. "The engineering community doesn't think that this is going to be a significant issue," shuttle flight director Paul Hill told a briefing.

"I expected that we would shed some small tolerable amount of debris," he said, underscoring that in his view "everything is going extremely well."

NASA experts on the ground scanned photos and video images from the launch.

The examination of the wings and the shuttle nose was conducted by a special laser scanner and infrared camera at the end of a 15-meter (50-foot) extension to the shuttle's robotic arm.

NASA wants to clear up any doubts before the shuttle docks with the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday.

Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center amid cheers and some tears from ground experts who had been working for two and a half years to get the shuttle back into space.

Earlier NASA flight operations manager John Shannon said the piece of tile was believed to be about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) in size and appeared to have come off the front landing gear.

The origin of the debris shown in a separate video was unknown but it appeared to fall away without touching the shuttle as the booster rockets broke away.

"We are going frame by frame through the imagery," Shannon said.

NASA quickly alerted Commander Eileen Collins about the debris but there was no immediate sign of concern among the crew, who include Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

As Discovery approaches the space station on Thursday, Collins will turn the orbiter around so the ISS crew can take photographs of its underside to help determine whether the shuttle's thermal protection system suffered any damage.

Before the crew went to sleep, Collins transmitted a message back to ground control thanking NASA engineers for their efforts in re-activating the shuttle program.

"As our crew looks back at our beautiful planet and then outwards towards the unknown of space we feel the importance, today more than anytime, of space exploration to all those who are living on Earth," she said, also paying tribute to Columbia crew who died when their shuttle broke up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

A piece of insulation foam fell from Columbia's external tank, causing a gash in the wing that allowed superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle.

The shuttle fleet has been grounded since then amid painstaking inquiries into the cause of the disaster and ways to correct the faults.

During the 12-day mission, Discovery will take supplies to the ISS and the crew will perform some risky operations designed to test new safety procedures.

During one of three planned spacewalks on the Discovery, Noguchi and his US counterpart Stephen Robinson will test repair techniques adopted after the Columbia disaster.

They are to test the use of toxic chemicals to repair the shuttle, but will abort the walk if the materials turn out to be too dangerous to handle in space.

earlier related report
Discovery Begins Checking For Damage
Cape Canaveral (AFP) Jul 27, 2005 - Special cameras began scanning the Discovery's exterior for damage Wednesday, after NASA filmed debris falling during the first launch of a shuttle since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

As the Discovery blasted off Tuesday with seven astronauts on a 12-day space mission, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) noticed what appeared to be a piece of a tile and another unknown object falling off separately during the first two minutes of the ascent.

An examination of the edges of the wings and the nose cap of the shuttle was being conducted by a special laser scanner and infrared camera at the end of a 15-meter (50-foot) boom extension held in the grip of the shuttle's robotic arm of the same length.

The scanning operation of the thermal tiles on the rounded edges of both wings and the tip of the shuttle began before 1000 GMT and was expected to last some seven hours, NASA said.

The Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:39 am (1439 GMT), Tuesday amid cheers and some tears from ground experts who had been working for two and a half years to get the shuttle back into space.

The agency said it was happy with the launch, despite the video of what appeared to be debris falling off the shuttle as it rose towards its orbit. Engineers were working to rule out any kind of repeat of the problem that caused the Columbia tragedy on February 1, 2003, when its seven-member crew died in a fireball on reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

NASA said its experts would meet on Wednesday morning to study the preliminary reports of what it called "ascent debris events." They stressed that it was not unusual for some material to come off the shuttle as it roared into space.

NASA flight operations manager John Shannon said the piece of tile was believed to be about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) in size and appeared to have come off the right landing gear on the nose.

The origin of the debris shown in a separate video was unknown but it appeared to fall away without touching the shuttle as the booster rockets broke away.

"We are going frame by frame through the imagery," Shannon told the briefing.

"It is too early," Shannon said when asked whether there was a danger to the shuttle. "I have to understand exactly what we have. We have to walk through the whole process methodically."

More than 100 cameras on the ground and two planes in the air monitored Discovery's rise. As Discovery reached orbit, Commander Eileen Collins tipped the shuttle slightly so the crew could see the external tank as it was jettisoned.

NASA quickly told Collins about the debris and hopes that experts would have more information on Wednesday.

Data from the inspection of the shuttle's wings and nose cap by the Canadian-built "orbiter boom sensor system" will be conveyed to NASA engineers on the ground, NASA said.

After this examination is complete, the astronauts will use the laser scanner and infrared camera to inspect thermal tiles near the crew cabin by placing it atop the robotic arm.

Once Discovery approaches the International Space Station on Thursday, Commander Collins will turn the orbiter around so the ISS crew can take photographs of its underside to help determine whether the shuttle's thermal protection system suffered any damage.

Before the crew went to sleep, Collins transmitted a message back to ground control thanking NASA engineers for their efforts in re-activating the shuttle program.

"As our crew looks back at our beautiful planet and then outwards towards the unknown of space we feel the importance, today more than anytime, of space exploration to all those who are living on Earth," she said, also paying tribute to Columbia crew who died when their shuttle broke up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

A piece of insulation foam fell from Columbia's external tank, causing a gash in the wing that allowed superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle.

The shuttle fleet has been grounded since then amid painstaking inquiries into the cause of the disaster and ways to correct the faults.

During the 12-day mission, Discovery will take supplies to the ISS and the crew will perform some risky operations designed to test new safety procedures.

During one of three planned spacewalks on the Discovery, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and his US counterpart Stephen Robinson will test repair techniques adopted after the Columbia disaster.

They are to test the use of toxic chemicals to repair the shuttle, but will abort the walk if the materials turn out to be too dangerous to handle in space.

earlier related report
NASA Investigates Tile Damage To Shuttle From Liftoff
Cape Canaveral (AFP) Jul 27, 2005 - A tiny piece of tile and a larger piece of debris came off the space shuttle Discovery as it blasted off Tuesday during its landmark first flight after the Columbia disaster, NASA said.

NASA flight operations manager John Shannon said the piece of tile was about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) in size and appeared to come off the right landing gear on the nose.

The origin of the debris shown in a separate video at a press briefing was unknown but it appeared to have fallen free as the booster rockets broke away without touching the shuttle.

A special team was to hold a meeting to inspect images of the possible damage early Wednesday and more inspections will be made with cameras on the shuttle over the next two days, experts said.

Most attention is being put on the tile chip that fell from the nose landing gear. But Shannon and other experts said it was too soon to know if there was any danger to the shuttle. They emphasised that pieces of tile fall off shuttles on virtually every mission.

"We are going frame by frame through the imagery," Shannon told the briefing.

"It is too early," Shannon said when asked if there was a danger to the crew. "I have to understand exactly what we have. We have to walk through the whole process methodically."

"We have not lost a tile, we may have lost a piece of a tile."

NASA also told the briefing that it had noticed dents in the nose of the shuttle caused by birds the vessel hit in flight.

The US space agency is extremely sensitive about damage to the shuttle because of the cause of the disaster that led to Columbia breaking up as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003.

A piece of insulation foam fell off Columbia's external tank, causing a gash in the wing that allowed superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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NASA Says Discovery Ready For Launch
Cape Canaveral (AFP) Jul 26, 2005
NASA insisted Discovery was ready for launch Tuesday despite an earlier postponement, but rain could cause another delay in the first space shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster. "Our flight teams are ready, our flight crew is ready for a successful mission and safe return home," Pete Nickolenko, NASA's test director, said on Monday.



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