CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA yesterday decided that no repairs are needed for a deep gouge in Endeavour's belly and that the space shuttle is safe to fly home.
Mission Control notified the seven shuttle astronauts of the decision before they went to sleep, ending a week of engineering analyses and anxious uncertainty in orbit and on Earth.
Endeavour's relieved commander, Scott Kelly, thanked everyone on the ground for their hard work. Mission Control replied, "It's great we finally have a decision and we can press forward."
After meeting for five hours, mission managers opted last night against risky spacewalk repairs, after receiving the results of one final thermal test. The massive amount of data indicated that Endeavour would sustain no serious structural damage during re-entry next week.
Their worry was not that Endeavour might be destroyed and its seven astronauts killed in a replay of the Columbia disaster — the gouge is too small to be catastrophic. They were concerned that the heat of re-entry could weaken the shuttle's aluminum frame at the damaged spot and result in lengthy postflight repairs.
Endeavour's bottom thermal shielding was pierced by a piece of debris that broke off the external fuel tank shortly after liftoff last week. The debris, either foam insulation, ice or a combination of both, weighed just one-third of an ounce but packed enough punch to carve out a 3½-inch-long, 2-inch-wide gouge and dig all the way through the thermal tiles. Left completely exposed is a narrow 1-inch strip of the overlying felt fabric, the last barrier before the shuttle's aluminum structure.
The only way to fix the gouge would have been to send out a pair of spacewalking astronauts with black paint and caulklike goo, and maneuver them beneath the shuttle on the end of a 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom, with few if any close-up camera views of the work.
The spacewalk would have added risk, so much so that mission managers do not want to attempt it unless absolutely necessary. Wednesday's spacewalk, cut short by an astronaut's ripped glove, showed how hazardous even a relatively routine spacewalk can be.
Astronaut Alvin Drew said from Endeavour that he was comfortable with the prospect of flying back to Earth in a gouged ship. Engineers seem confident, he said, "and I trust their confidence that we can get home safely even with the divot that we have in the belly."
But a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who served on the Columbia investigation board four years ago, Stanford University's Douglas Osheroff, questioned NASA's hesitancy to perform the repairs because they "can only increase their chances of making it down."