- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

NASA managers say the schedule for the planned May 15 launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery is tight but doable if “everything was to go all our way.”

The STS-114 mission will mark the first shuttle flight since the fleet was grounded after the Columbia accident on Feb. 1, 2003.

The direct cause of the Columbia accident was a piece of insulating foam that fell off the external tank and damaged Columbia’s wing.

Even though the design requirement specifies that no foam or other debris is allowed to come off the tank, it has occurred on almost every shuttle mission. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center didn’t consider the falling foam to be a safety issue, just a nuisance that would lead to additional maintenance to repair the damage to the shuttle’s delicate heat-protection system.

During the launch of Columbia on its doomed flight, a piece of foam weighing less than 2 pounds fell off the tank and slammed into the wing at 500 mph, creating a 10-inch hole. During re-entry, superheated gases entered that hole and destroyed the wing, leading to the destruction of the shuttle.

A newly designed tank is supposed to eliminate most of the falling foam, but Marshall’s engineers say they cannot prevent small pieces from falling during future launches.

Marshall manager Michael Kostelnik said, “We have scheduled the 15th of May as our targeted launch date. It should be clearly understood that this is a ‘not earlier than’ date, which gives us the earliest opportunity we can bring all of the processing elements together.”

Discovery was scheduled to leave its hangar Friday, but the move was delayed. It is now expected to leave the hangar Monday. Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said the delay “did eat a little into our contingency” days.

After Discovery is attached to the newly certified external tank and solid rocket boosters, it will be rolled to its seaside launchpad in early April.

An independent oversight panel is expected to give its approval and certify that NASA has fulfilled all of the changes recommended last April by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Mr. Parsons said, “We normally have about five contingency days, if we roll over on the 28th, we’ve got two or three. We would prefer to have a few more of those.”

NASA will wait until mid-April before deciding whether to change the May 15 planning date for Discovery’s launch.

One of the key requirements for the next two shuttle missions is to launch during daylight. Discovery’s destination is the International Space Station. The daylight launch requirement limits the available launch dates from May 15 to June 3. If Discovery doesn’t launch by June 3, the next opportunity will be in July.

Another requirement is the capability to have another shuttle ready to launch as a rescue vehicle within six weeks if necessary. Atlantis is being prepared in conjunction with Discovery just in case it is needed.

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