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Shuttle Launch Still Seen For July; Some Foam Loss Expected

By | June 5, 2006

      The Space Shuttle Discovery still is poised for a launch in July, even though many last-minute issues remain to be worked out, Wayne Hale, manager of the program, said yesterday in a video teleconference with journalists at NASA sites.

      “I foresee no show-stoppers,” Hale reported.

      Discovery has a target launch date of July 1, with a window of July 1 to July 19 for liftoff of the STS-121 mission from the Kennedy Space Center.

      Many components of the shuttle have been redesigned since the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew were lost Feb. 1, 2003, when a chunk of foam insulation broke off during launch and damaged the spacecraft, causing it to overheat during reentry in a fiery streak across the sky.

      Discovery itself also lost some foam insulation during a launch last year.

      In assessing the Discovery mission, “There is no reason not to launch” as scheduled July 1, although “it is possible we could move a day or so,” Hale said. But he sees no necessity for slipping the date at this time.

      There has been intense work in preparing for this flight, in which NASA experts “have looked at every piece of foam” on an external tank, Hale said.

      At issue has been manually applied foam, and robotically applied foam as well, he said.

      At the same time, Hale cautioned that journalists shouldn’t expect that all this work will result in no foam coming off in this launch. In fact, with seven cameras at work, even more foam losses may be spotted.

      But, he said, these should be smaller pieces of foam.

      “I don’t expect to see any one-pound pieces of foam coming off,” Hale said. Judging from prior missions, there may be “hundreds of little white splotches” where small pieces of foam have broken loose.

      “I expect we’ll see quite a lot” of pieces gone, he said.

      One reason the foam losses are likely to be small pieces, he said, is that there has been exhaustive research into just why foam breaks loose from the surfaces to which it is applied. Before the 2003 disaster, “we had no idea why the foam was coming off the tank,” he said.

      “We will continue to see foam come off the tank,” Hale predicted.

      The foam question and other issues have been thrashed out at length, including a meeting in which more than 100 engineers had a “spirited” discussion of potential shuttle problems, Hale said.

      Among the items remaining before launch will be wind tunnel testing, including work in supersonic wind tunnels, he said.

      Hale said he still expects three shuttle launches this year.

      Companies involved in the shuttle program include The Boeing Co. [BA], Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], United Technologies Corp. [UTX] and ATK [ATK].

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