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NASA is weighing changes to shuttle
5 major areas will undergo scrutiny
Mar. 9, 2003 12:00 AM
HOUSTON - NASA is studying five broad changes to space shuttle hardware and operations that could be in place before the fleet returns to flight.
An internal letter from shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore obtained by the Orlando Sentinel directs NASA engineers to focus on the following areas:
Redesigning foam insulation on the external fuel tank around the spot where the orbiter is attached to the tank with a pair of struts.
Finding a way to fix the shuttle's thermal protection system in orbit.
Improving ground-based photo and radar coverage of the shuttle during launch.
Installing cameras aboard the shuttle for additional photo coverage of launch.
Exploring possible changes to the shuttle's re-entry trajectory to minimize heating on the wing's leading edges and protective thermal tiles.
The Feb. 27 letter says the changes should be "reviewed and assessed for near-term implementation." All of the potential improvements are issues that have surfaced in the wake of shuttle Columbia's Feb. 1 breakup during re-entry that killed seven astronauts.
Changes must wait
The move is significant because it could speed the time needed to return the three remaining shuttles to flight. National Aeronautics and Space Administration managers say any major changes in design or operations must wait until the cause of Columbia's accident is found and an investigative board has released its findings and recommendations.
But by anticipating some of the possible changes, the shuttle program could be ready to move ahead more quickly once the panel's work is done. Dittemore testified during the board's first hearing Thursday in Houston that engineers are at work on improvements.
"It's broader than just what may be determined as the root cause," Dittemore said.
"They're going to look and see if there is something else in the system that may have existed for many years. They will come back and make a recommendation to me."
The 15-story external fuel tank, in particular, has attracted a good deal of attention since Columbia's accident.
Foam insulation estimated to weigh more than 2 pounds broke free from the tank's bipod area 82 seconds after launch Jan. 16 and smashed into Columbia's left wing. Experts think the strike caused damage that led to a breach in the wing during re-entry.
Program managers were redesigning a small foam ramp on the tank's bipod area after insulation came loose from the same spot during Atlantis' launch in October. Changes included lengthening the time to spray on the foam and possible removal of a silicon-based ablative material underneath.
The letter tasks the tank project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to "review the ET (external tank) bipod area and recommend changes to the ET insulation design and implementation to preclude any loss of insulation."
The directive also suggests that foam loss problems could become a constraint to launch and no longer accepted as a manageable risk. If so, it would mark a major philosophical change in the shuttle program.
Meanwhile, managers in Johnson Space Center's Mission Operations Directorate have been asked to find ways to identify and repair damage to the wings' leading edges and heat tiles while the shuttle is in orbit. Analyses indicate those areas on Columbia were the ones most likely struck by debris as well as where the ship's protective heat armor probably was breached.
Looking for problems
With most future shuttle missions headed to the International Space Station, the plan almost certainly will include maneuvers around the outpost to allow the station's crew to inspect the ship's belly for damage. Other possible inspection tools include telescopes, space walks, use of a camera on the shuttle's robot arm and top-secret military assets on the ground and in orbit.
Fixing damage likely will be harder than finding it.
NASA gave up an effort to develop a tile repair option for astronauts in the early 1980s. The space agency convened a new task force Feb. 27 to take another look at the problem. The panel's considerable challenge is to find a way for space walkers to safely repair broken and missing tiles in the weightless vacuum of low-Earth orbit, where temperatures can fluctuate by hundreds of degrees in minutes.
Two other changes being looked at would improve photo coverage of the shuttle launch.