- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

HOUSTON (AP) — A couple of short strips of filler material dangling from Discovery’s belly had NASA scrambling yesterday to determine whether the protrusions might endanger the space shuttle during re-entry and whether the astronauts might need to attempt a repair.

The potential trouble has nothing to do with launch debris, but rather material used to fill the spaces between thermal tiles, a common problem in the past although not necessarily to this extent.

Flight director Paul Hill said engineers will spend the next day analyzing the situation and decide today whether to have the crew’s two spacewalkers cut, pull out or shove back the hanging material.

It could be that it’s perfectly safe for Discovery and its crew of seven to fly back with the two drooping pieces, as shuttles have done many times, Mr. Hill said.

One piece is sticking out an inch between thermal tiles; the other six-tenths of an inch. The longest protruding gap filler seen on a returning shuttle was a quarter-inch, but Mr. Hill cautioned that the measurement was taken after re-entry, and the intense heat could have burned off some of the material. The thin gap fillers are made of a feltlike material and ceramic and are held in place with glue and by the tight fit.

Any repair, if deemed necessary, could be performed during the third spacewalk of the mission, now set for Wednesday, or a fourth, unplanned, spacewalk might be required, Mr. Hill said. The astronaut would have to stand on a long robotic arm in order to reach the two areas, located on the shuttle’s belly near the nose.

One extreme option under consideration is to put an astronaut on the end of the brand-new 100-foot inspection crane, but it could be a bouncy ride. That makes lots of scientists “understandably nervous,” Mr. Hill said.

He said there are strong arguments for and against most of the options.

Anything dangling from the bottom of the shuttle during re-entry will overheat the area, as well as downstream locations. The ongoing analysis is to decide whether that overheating will be within safety limits.

NASA has cleared all of Discovery’s thermal tiles for landing next Monday. The only remaining issues, before the final go-ahead can be given for descent, are the reinforced carbon panels that line the wings and nose cap, and the two hanging gap fillers.

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