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Astronaut Sees Shuttle As Safer With Fixes, But Says Orion-Ares To Be Safer Yet

By | March 10, 2008

      Establishing Camp On Moon Wise Before Moving On To Mars, Foreman Says

      Space shuttles have become far safer with engineering changes made in response to the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, according to an astronaut who early tomorrow morning will fly into orbit on Space Shuttle Endeavour for the STS-123 Mission.

      Michael J. Foreman, a spacewalking mission specialist, said the proof is in the pudding as far as NASA figuring out how to prevent another Columbia-like disaster.

      The key here, he said, is how clean and undamaged the shuttle orbiter vehicles have been when they returned from missions to the International Space Station.

      When Columbia rocketed toward space five years ago, a chunk of foam insulation ripped free from the external fuel tank and hit the orbiter vehicle, smashing a hole in the heat shield on the leading edge of a wing. Later, when Columbia attempted to return to Earth, searing hot gases of reentry rushed into the wing and melted structural components, leading to a loss of the ship and its crew of seven.

      Foreman, who worked on the post-Columbia assessment team, had high praise for the engineering teams who reconstructed the disaster, working back in the chain of events to discover the cause.

      "They did an amazing job," said Foreman, a Navy captain.

      Following the Columbia loss, engineers examined ways to lessen or eliminate foam insulation-loss dangers, such as by reducing the amount of foam in some areas of the external fuel tank, redesigning the ice frost ramps on the tank exterior, and more.

      Thus far, the fixes have worked, with little foam loss seen in recent shuttle missions. What foam has broken free has been small in size, and often the insulation rips loose so later in the ascent that the shuttle is above the atmosphere, so there is no air to accelerate foam pieces to lethal velocities.

      Foreman spoke from Johnson Space Center in a teleconference with several space journalists.

      Orion-Ares: Even Safer

      As improved as the space shuttles have become with redesigns, however, Foreman predicted that the next-generation U.S. spaceship will be far safer still.

      The NASA Constellation Program now is moving to develop the future Orion crew exploration vehicle, an Apollo-style space capsule, and the Ares rocket that will lift Orion into orbit and, perhaps by the end of the next decade, on to the moon.

      "I definitely thin Orion-Ares will be a safer design," Foreman said, not plagued with insulation-loss problems.

      And Foreman would like a piece of that action.

      After he returns from the 16-day STS-123 mission, he said he still would like to fly on one of the dozen or so remaining space shuttle flights before the shuttle fleet is retired in October 2010, But, he conceded, chances of snagging a seat on one of those few remaining shuttle missions might be pretty slim.

      In that case, he said, he would like to fly on one of the Orion-Ares missions. The first manned flight is set for 2015, half a decade after the shuttles stop flying. In that five-year gap, U.S. astronauts wanting to go to low Earth orbit will have to use Russian or other transport craft.

      Looking at Orion-Ares, "I’d like to have a role in that mission," Foreman said. "I’d like to stick around here for a while."

      Foreman, who will turn 51 in less than three weeks, is an Ohio native, married for 29 years with three children.

      He said he wants to remain a mission specialist so that he can do spacewalks, because "I always thought spacewalks were the coolest," rather than taking the typical career move to become a shuttle pilot and then a mission commander. "I like my role as mission specialist," he said, even though the conventional wisdom is to become a pilot and then mission commander.

      But closer to Earth, Foreman is very definitely a pilot, having flown more than 50 types of aircraft a total of 5,000 hours. At a certain point, he said, learning how to fly a different type of aircraft is not much different than a motorist who has driven various makes of cars learning how to drive a different brand of motor vehicle.

      After the half-decade gap, NASA plans to use Orion-Ares first to go to low Earth orbit. Then, perhaps by the end of the next decade, Orion-Ares and a moon lander unit would permit Americans to return to the moon for a visit. Still later, NASA would establish a permanent outpost on the moon. Then, perhaps by 2030 or later, the United States might launch a manned mission to Mars.

      Some critics have asked why Congress doesn’t pony up some serious money and finance a mission to Mars straightaway, with no detours to return to the moon.

      But Foreman said flying on missions to the moon first makes sense. The moon is much closer to Earth, 250,000 or so miles versus millions of miles to Mars, which would be a plus if something goes wrong. Visiting the moon, perhaps with international partners, would be "like a stepping stone" toward the much longer voyage to Mars, he said. Going directly to the red planet, on the other hand, would be "a big, big chunk to bite off," Foreman observed.


      Foreman was asked what advice he has received as an astronaut.

      While some might think that advice for an astronaut would be to always work flat out to succeed, he said some sound advice he heard was to remember to take time out after reaching space.

      Rather than nonstop and unending focus on the mission and its tasks, he was told to take time out to remember that "I’m up here.

      I’m living my dream" of going to space.

      An astronaut has to remember occasionally to take some time "to look out the window." At the Earth 200-plus miles below. "Take a couple of minutes to take it all in," he said.

      On the STS-123 mission, Foreman will have a chance to do more than look out the window in watching the Earth far below.

      The Endeavour mission will be a long 16 days, with a grueling five spacewalks.

      They will be required to install the Japanese Logistics Module, part of the Kibo Japanese laboratory module, and the Canadian Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or Dextre, that will be taken to the space station.

      Foreman will get his chance to step into the void for some work outside the space station.

      He and fellow mission specialist, Air Force Maj. Robert L. Behnken, will store on the station the boom that attaches to the space shuttle robotic arm for heat shield inspections.

      Those inspections have become routine on every shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster.

      The boom is being stored on orbit since the next shuttle will not have enough room to carry both the boom and the larger JAXA module in the cargo bay.

      Other astronauts in the Endeavour STS-123 crew are Navy Capt. Dominic L. Gorie, the commander, and Air Force Col. Gregory H. Johnson, the pilot, and mission specialists Richard M. Linnehan, Garrett E. Reisman and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Takao Doi.

      Reisman is scheduled to join the space station Expedition 16 crew as flight engineer. Endeavour will fill his space on the return trip to Earth with European Space Agency astronaut and space station crew member L�opold Eyharts.

      STS-123 is the 25th shuttle mission to the International Space Station.

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