- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — With the countdown entering its final hours and a fuel gauge problem still unexplained, NASA said it is prepared to bend its long-standing safety rules to launch the shuttle today on the first flight since Columbia’s doomed mission 21/2 years ago.

Discovery and a crew of seven are set to blast off for the International Space Station at 10:39 a.m., after a two-week delay caused by a malfunctioning hydrogen fuel gauge in the spaceship’s giant external tank.

Nature, rather than the fuel gauge, ultimately could decide whether Discovery takes off. Forecasters put the odds of good launch weather at 60 percent, with rain and storm clouds both posing threats.

NASA had the paperwork ready to go in case the equipment trouble reappeared and the space agency’s managers decided to press ahead with the launch with just three of the four fuel gauges working. That would mean deviating from a rule instituted after the 1986 Challenger explosion.

“There’s very little in life that is 100 percent guaranteed, and there’s probably less in rocket science that’s 100 percent guaranteed,” deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said this weekend. “That is part of the risk we take.”

The fuel gauges are designed to prevent the main engines from running too long or not long enough, in case the fuel tank is leaking or another major breakdown occurs. An engine shutdown at the wrong time could prove catastrophic, forcing the astronauts to attempt a risky emergency landing overseas or leading to a ruptured engine.

Both Mr. Hale and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin noted that multiple failures would have to occur in multiple systems for the worst-case scenario to occur.

Only two gauges, or sensors, are needed to do the job. But since NASA’s return to space in 1988, the space agency has decreed that all four have to work to proceed with launch.

NASA test director Pete Nickolenko said yesterday that he did not remember the last time one of the “launch commit criteria,” as the rules are called, was waived. But he expressed confidence in NASA’s game plan and said the space agency had done everything possible to understand the fuel-gauge problem, which first cropped up during a test in April and resurfaced during a launch attempt July 13.

A retired agent in NASA’s inspector general office, Joseph Gutheinz, said the space agency does not appear to have learned its lesson from the Columbia disaster.

“It is clear to me that NASA continues to put mission over safety,” Mr. Gutheinz said. “I fear that if NASA is wrong this time, as they were for Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, manned space missions may be halted for a very long time in the United States.”

Randy Avera, a former NASA engineer who helped develop the shuttle’s inspection program, also questioned the space agency’s willingness to bend the launch rule. He said it reminds him of the thinking that led to the Challenger accident, which was blamed on a cold-stiffened O-ring seal in a booster rocket and NASA’s inattention to safety.

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