- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA gave the green light last night for an Independence Day space shuttle liftoff despite worries about a piece of foam that popped off Discovery’s external fuel tank while the spacecraft sat on the launchpad.

“We’re going to continue with the launch countdown,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator, at a nighttime briefing.

The decision for the 2:38 p.m. liftoff today was sure to stir more debate about whether the space agency was putting its flight schedule ahead of safety, even though Mr. Gerstenmaier said that “there were no dissenters … no concerns raised” at a meeting of managers.

He said the astronauts and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin were in on the discussion. Mr. Griffin “didn’t raise any question or comments, but he listened intently,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said.

The 3-inch triangular piece of foam that appeared to come from a 5-inch-long crack late Sunday or early yesterday is far smaller than the foam chunk that brought down Columbia, killing seven astronauts in 2003. Mr. Gerstenmaier showed reporters the piece of foam, which looked like a wedge of toast.

“I don’t think we’re taking any additional risk than we did in our original assessment” in going ahead with a launch, he said.

Managers had spent most of yesterday pondering the problem. NASA has spent millions of dollars trying to prevent foam from breaking off at liftoff, threatening the kind of damage it did to Columbia. Engineers were startled when foam broke off Discovery during last year’s mission, but it didn’t harm the shuttle.

The loss of foam from that area of the tank while on the launchpad has happened only once before, Mr. Gerstenmaier said.

Some outside specialists said they were uncomfortable with the launch going ahead, although they didn’t have all the information. Paul Fischbeck, an engineering and risk analysis professor at the Carnegie Mellon University, had been worried earlier in the day by the falling chunk of foam. But he said that NASA’s rationale in going ahead made sense and that he is slightly more comfortable with a launch try today.

Mr. Fischbeck, who has consulted with NASA on the shuttle’s delicate heat-protection system, wondered why foam had broken off on the launchpad. “It’s something you might want to understand before you launch,” he said.

The piece of foam fell off an area that covers an expandable bracket holding a liquid-oxygen fuel line against the huge external tank. NASA engineers think ice built up in that area from condensation caused by rain Sunday.

The tank expanded when the super-cold fuel was drained after the Sunday launch was canceled because of the weather. The ice that formed “pinched” some of that foam, causing the quarter-inch-wide crack and the piece of foam to drop off, said John Shannon, deputy manager of the space shuttle program.

The size of the fallen foam was less than half the size of one that could cause damage, NASA officials said.

NASA managers decided to go ahead with the launch attempt for three reasons: They are confident enough that foam still is on the bracket to prevent a large piece of ice from forming; that the area of foam from where the piece dropped was still intact; and that the area won’t be exposed to extreme heat during ascent.

Inspectors spotted the crack in the foam insulation during an overnight check of the shuttle. NASA had scrubbed launch plans Saturday and Sunday because of weather problems.

The forecast for a liftoff today was better than in previous days, with a 40 percent chance that storm clouds would prevent a launch.

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