- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 7 (UPI) — NASA plans to change the space shuttle's external tank foam insulation to eliminate any chance falling debris will damage an orbiter during launch, an internal memo released Friday shows.

"It's got to be done before return to flight," said Johnson Space Center spokesman John Ira Petty.

The directive, outlined by shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, is among five changes NASA plans to make to shuttle operations, processes and hardware in anticipation of shuttle flights resuming following the Columbia accident investigation.

Although the board probing the Feb. 1 fatal accident has not yet honed in on the cause of the accident, questions about falling foam insulation that hit the shuttle during launch have been debated. The board has determined a breach in the shuttle's left wing allowed hot gases during atmospheric re-entry to torch inside the wing, dooming the ship and its seven-member crew. The cause of the breach has not yet been determined.

Insulation from the external fuel tank has fallen off and hit the orbiter and its booster rockets during previous launches, but NASA officials do not think it posed a risk to the shuttle or the crew.

Dittemore also wants his team to devise methods for orbiting shuttle crews to inspect and repair their spaceship's wings and tiles, if necessary. NASA has said even if engineers had known Columbia was damaged at launch, nothing could have been done.

Now, however, the agency wants to revisit that assumption, with Dittemore assigning his team to come up with additional options for photographing the shuttle during launch and while it is in orbit. He also has requested engineers re-analyze re-entry procedures to further minimize the effects of heating on key areas of the shuttle.

"Although there is still much work to be done in support of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, there exists areas within the Space Shuttle Program where design and/or operations improvement should be reviewed and assessed for near term implementation," Dittemore wrote.

Specifically, Dittemore directed the team to:

— Review the external tank bipod area, which is where falling debris has come from in the past, and recommend changes to preclude any loss of insulation. This is a "return to flight constraint," notes Dittemore.

— Identify wing leading edge and tile inspection techniques and repair options. "The assessment should concentrate on utilizing the International Space Station assets and capabilities along with Department of Defense assets," Dittemore wrote.

— Review the existing launch viewing assets and capabilities, such as camera, film and radar, and recommend improvements.

— Identify options to obtain flight coverage of critical launch and ascent activities and environments, including putting cameras on the external tank and on the solid rocket boosters.

— Examine possible trajectory modifications to minimize heating during re-entry.

Dittemore, who wrote the memo Feb. 27, was unavailable for comment. However, he told the accident investigation team Thursday that engineers already were working on shuttle improvements.

"They're going to look and see if there is something else in the system that may have existed for many years," he said.

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