Hale positive on May launch target

by Chris Bergin

Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale has addressed workers at the NASA Langley Flight Research Facility, praising their work on evaluating solutions to External Tank (ET) foam liberation.

Hale revealed that NASA is very close to confirming results from recent testing, which it’s hoped will ultimately give enough assurances that STS-121 can launch with a greatly reduced risk of foam shedding from critical areas of the ET.

NASA is currently in a pause of Shuttle flights, due to foam shedding from the PAL Ramp – and foam divoting in critical areas – on the ET during STS-114’s ascent.

Although it was likely that a repair on the inter-tank crotch area of ET-121 ultimately affected the PAL Ramp – contributing towards a series of events – it has been decided that the wedge of foam needs to be replaced with a smaller ramp, one that also employees new processes of application.

While MSFC (Marshall Space Flight Center) and MAF (Michoud Assembly Facility) have been responsible for the bulk of evaluations, Langley’s 25 per cent involvement has been mainly on the testing of their collective findings.

Those findings require double-checking, but Hale is now confident the process has moved along enough to warrant optimism in achieving a May “Return to Flight 3” for Discovery next year.

“We feel confident that testing will confirm the solution that has been reached about keeping the foam intact on the external tank and permitting a launch in May,” he said.

Both ET-119 and ET-120 are back at MAF – and are having their existing PAL Ramps removed.

The facility will not return to full staffing – following the disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina – until Christmas, but have been buoyed by the news that the US Government has announced special funding to help speed a return to full operations.

“$269 million to rebuild NASA’s Michoud and Stennis centers, among the largest employers in the Gulf area,” noted a White House fact sheet on Sunday. “$132 million for NASA to complete hurricane emergency operations and resume normal space programs.”

One of the other issues raised on STS-114 was a pair of protruding gap fillers on the belly of Discovery. While not a threat to the Orbiter on ascent, NASA held concerns over their potential effects on the aerodynamic changes to the profile of Discovery during re-entry/entry interface.

During STS-114, astronaut Steve Robinson successfully removed both gap fillers during an historic space walk (EVA), live on television sets around the planet. “This big patient is now cured,” he announced, as the second gap filler eased out of Discovery. 

Evaluations on solving this issue have brought NASA to a decision, which Hale also took time to announce at Langley.

“Scientists have concluded that the adhesive holding the gap fillers in place wears out after a certain number of flights,” he added. “To fix the problem, workers are removing and reinstalling 9,000 gap fillers.”

Hale’s comments add confidence that NASA will soon confirm the first six NET (No Sooner Than) dates of the current 19 flight manifest, starting with Discovery’s STS-121, which currently stands as May 3, 2006.

NASA have been waiting to hear if all their supporting facilities can deliver key components – such as the ETs – on time to support their NET launch dates.

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