Mention O-rings, and people’s hearts start beating faster.
Few, in or outside the space program, have forgotten the damage done to Challenger nearly 10 years ago by the failure of a rubber O-ring seal.
Last week, NASA discovered that a critical O-ring seal in a booster rocket had been singed slightly by gas from burning solid fuel during Atlantis’ launch in late June. The situation worsened Wednesday when NASA confirmed that a similar thing happened during Discovery’s liftoff two weeks ago.
“Everyone has that picture in their mind of 73 seconds,” said Seymour Himmel, a consultant to the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, an independent watchdog group that monitors NASA.
Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven people aboard. In that case, flaming gases burned completely through an O-ring seal.
NASA officials insist the crews of Atlantis and Discovery were not in any added danger because of the latest O-ring problem.
But that still leaves questions about whether it’s safe to launch Endeavour on Aug. 5 as planned, or whether all four shuttles should be grounded until an investigative engineering team understands what went wrong.
Shuttle managers hope to have an answer by early next week.
The new O-ring trouble is in a different location than the site of Challenger’s leak. This time, it’s in a nozzle joint, still a sensitive spot.