July 1, 2006 in Nation/World

NASA readies launch despite concerns

John Johnson Jr. Los Angeles Times
 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Amid lingering concerns over dangerous amounts of insulating foam flaking off the space shuttle’s external fuel tank, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said Friday that today’s scheduled launch of Discovery is a risk, but a risk worth taking.

“You’re not going to like this, and I’m sure I’m not going to like the way it sounds in print,” Griffin said at a media briefing a short distance from the shuttle’s launch pad. “But we are playing the odds.”

He said balancing the danger of another catastrophic accident like the ones that destroyed Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 against the pressure to keep to a schedule that calls for shutting down the shuttle program in 2010 “is what you pay us for as taxpayers.”

Griffin has taken heat in recent weeks for deciding to go ahead with the launch, the second since Columbia was brought down by a piece of insulating foam that tore a hole in the orbiter’s left wing. The agency’s top safety officer and chief engineer both recommended “no go” at a Flight Readiness Review two weeks ago.

They were concerned that while NASA had addressed the problem that destroyed Columbia by removing more than 30 pounds of insulating foam from the side of the fuel tank, there was still a potential problem with another foam-covered part, known as the ice frost ramps.

That foam shields 35 brackets that hold the super-cooled liquid fuel lines in place.

Probability studies showed risks as high as a 1-in-75 chance that enough foam could flake off the ice frost ramps to seriously damage the orbiter on liftoff.

Griffin offered two reasons for overruling his advisers. First, the biggest piece of foam that has ever come off the ice frost ramps is 0.2 pounds, far less than the amount necessary to damage the shuttle. Second, even if the craft is damaged, the crew could safely stay in the International Space Station and wait for rescue.

In e-mail messages obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, some officials in the inspector general’s office raised concerns about Griffin’s decision, suggesting that he might be bowing to scheduling pressures.

To finish construction of the International Space Station by the 2010 deadline, the shuttle must launch 16 more times, about four missions per year. That is roughly the rate at which NASA has launched shuttles throughout the program’s 25-year history, although in the last three years it has only managed to launch one mission.

Griffin admitted to being concerned about schedules. “There are no activities humans undertake that don’t have schedule” pressures, he said. “I can’t accept that as a criticism.”

The crew of Discovery has consistently said they are happy with the work NASA has done to fix the shuttle and consider the ice frost ramp danger minimal.

John Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute in Washington, said the dissenters in NASA “were doing their jobs” by raising their concerns. But he said it’s impossible to reduce the threat to zero.

He called Griffin’s decision “rather courageous,” when it would have been easy to err on the side of caution.

NASA launch officials said Discovery appears to be in good shape and ready to take off. The only problem is that the weather may not cooperate. Kathy Winters, the agency weather expert, said Friday that there is a 60 percent chance bad weather will prevent a launch not only Saturday but Sunday and Monday as well.


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