NASA DVR passes Discovery for launch

by Chris Bergin

A series of pre-launch landmarks remain, but Shuttle manager Wayne Hale is confident that all is going to plan for the launch of Shuttle Discovery on STS-121 in July.

The Debris Verification Review – involving over 100 engineers – had been meeting at the Kennedy Space Center this week, discussing the modified External Tank’s probability of serious foam liberation during ascent.

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NASA once again came up against a number of objections to flying ET-119 without further modifications to the Ice/Frost ramp, during what Hale described as a ‘spirited’ discussion. However, the current rationale remains to proceed with one major change at a time. **MSFC Claim ET Unacceptable for flight, article**

That major change came in the form of the PAL ramp, which has been removed following foam liberation from the ramp during STS-114’s ascent last year.

‘Preparations for a Shuttle launch is an intensely technological thing, but also a supremely human thing,’ said Hale in his opening remarks. 

The ‘human thing’ has been one of the key elements in the flow of getting Discovery to being just a month away from launch, given the protests against launching without dealing with the ice/frost ramp modifications.

However, the Program as a whole are pressing ahead with the July launch target.

‘Today we gathered at the Kennedy Space Center with a large team from all around the Agency to do another review to make sure we’re ready to go fly,’ added Hale. ‘I’m pleased to announce that we have gone through (the DVR) and we have found no showstoppers, (and) we believe we have made significant improvements since last year in the elimination of many of the hazards from foam (loss).

‘But one of the things I don’t want to hear when I turn on my TV tonight is that we’ve fixed the tank.’

Hale was referring to the continued loss of foam that will occur on launches. The key for NASA is reducing the size of the foam loss to a level that would insure that any foam loss that strikes the orbiter would not cause a breach along the same lines as the 1.6 lbs of foam that struck Columbia – which led to her eventual collapse and destruction on re-entry in 2003.

‘You’re going to hear me say this over and over again as we get ready for flight, there will continue to be foam coming off the tank,’ noted Hale. ‘What we have done – in a very systematic manner – is eliminate the largest hazards.’

As far as getting to the point in time where the External Tanks have reduced the next serious hazard area, the Ice/Frost ramp, Hale noted it might take another six to eight flights before they have removed the need for foam in those areas along the side of the tank.

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The next milestone for proceeding with the launch of Discovery is the ET Design Certification Review – where data will be presented to show that the tank will remain structurally sound through the ascent.

This process has been aided by the approval of making STS-121 a ‘Low Q ascent profile’ – which reduces the stress on the Shuttle through the early parts of the ascent. **Low Q article**

‘Next week we will be going to the External Tank Design Certification Review, and at that time we will find out from the structural analysis whether all of the aerodynamic changes have resulted in a situation where the structure will still hold together,’ said Hale.

However, for now, the Shuttle Program remains buoyant that they will return to flight once again for what will be the second test mission, ahead of a return to regular mission operations during the final 17 launches of the Space Shuttle.

‘We have come to the conclusion that we have an acceptable risk posture to go fly,’ Hale announced.

Further articles to follow…

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