Next flight: March, 2006 – Discovery

by Chris Bergin

NASA is set to announce that the next Shuttle launch will be no sooner than March 2006, with Discovery taking over from her sister Atlantis on STS-121.

In a wide ranging review of the current status of the fleet, all External Tanks will be returned to the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) to have their PAL Ramps removed, re-sprayed and returned to KSC.

It was an area on the PAL Ramp that liberated foam shortly after SRB Separation on assent that caused the ETs to be re-evaluated, post STS-114.

Although the area in question was a repair patch – leading to a probable reason for the shedding, other areas of the tank still failed to satisfy managers.

 (c) MAF

While there is no definitive information on the spraying process – this is understood to be based around a new process to help solve foam liberation in the areas of concern.

Discovery will once again become NASA’s Return To Flight Orbiter – given the period of time before the next launch. Atlantis was being processed for a September launch, but given – amongst other issues – the forward Reaction Control System (RCS) module must be pulled and the thrusters reworked, because the launch delay exceeded their certification dwell time, processing for STS-121 will be on Discovery.

Discovery herself is set to fly back from Edwards Air force base in California at dawn local time on Friday. The trip will take about two days.

 (C) NSF

Fallout from STS-114 has seen the overview body for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) criticise NASA managers for continued internal issues that plague the Agency’s inner workings – claiming it to be arrogant, sloppy and schedule-driven.

The Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group – headed by former astronauts – believes smugness remains in the corridors of NASA’s offices.

“This ‘We’ve seen this before’ mentality is still present,” it read in a statement – which was endorsed by seven members of the panel. “NASA’s leaders must break this cycle of smugness substituting for knowledge.”

The overview body also called for more openness at NASA – ensuring everyone has a say with any concern they hold.

“This requires that the people involved understand, document, and ultimately accept the risk associated with that activity.

“NASA must be vigilant to prevent the development of a false sense of security by accepting faulty assumptions, or otherwise inappropriate analyses, to justify return to flight and continued Space Shuttle operations.”

To read the full Stafford-Covey report, click here:

To follow the ET Debris issue, click here:

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