- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Space Shuttle Discovery and its crew of six returned safely home yesterday, rejuvenating a program that until now had been vexed by the same chronic foam problem that brought down Columbia more than three years ago.

Within hours of the smooth touchdown, NASA was looking ahead to the next shuttle launch in six weeks and with it the long-awaited return to construction work on the half-finished International Space Station.

“It’s a good day,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said. “It’s an awfully good day.”

Discovery’s commander, Air Force Col. Steven Lindsey, who took a walk around the shuttle after landing, said he had never seen one look so clean and undamaged after a spaceflight. It was a striking achievement for a launch that was challenged by some within NASA who wanted more improvements to protect the spacecraft from flyaway foam insulation.

Col. Lindsey noted that both of the mission’s major objectives were accomplished: completing tests of the shuttle and its redesigned fuel tank, which now carries less foam, and readying NASA to resume space station construction, which was suspended after the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.

“We’re ready to go assemble station,” Col. Lindsey said in the shorthand typical of NASA engineers. “And we’re ready to start flying shuttles on a more regular basis.”

Across the Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to Mission Control, posters advertised the homecoming ceremony that was set for the astronauts today. “We’re BAAAACK!” the signs shouted in big red letters.

The smooth landing left NASA officials jubilant, after conquering the potentially deadly threat of foam chunks breaking off the external fuel tank during launch — still a problem, but not a serious one on this mission.

The largest piece of foam that came off Discovery’s tank during the July 4 liftoff was barely bigger than a sheet of legal paper and weighed less than an ounce. Like all of the handful of notable foam chunks that peeled away, it came off late enough in the launch to pose no danger to the spaceship.

During the same shuttle’s launch last summer, a 1-pound chunk of foam tore away at a crucial moment. Even though it missed Discovery, it stunned and embarrassed NASA, and forced a one-year grounding of the shuttle fleet, on top of what already had been a 21/2-year stand-down. The piece of foam that ripped Columbia’s left wing weighed 11/2 pounds.

Outsiders gave NASA high marks.

“What’s important is that they changed their approaches to spaceflight considerably; it was an organizational test,” said American University public policy professor Howard McCurdy, who has written several books about NASA management. “I don’t give many A’s. They’re clearly back to where they want to be. A B-plus.”

Columbia accident investigator John Logsdon, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said Discovery’s latest mission was carried out “with the kind of laserlike attention and vigilance” that was missing before the 2003 disaster.


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