Endeavour suffered no heat damage – NASA managers speak out

by Chris Bergin

Engineers have found no heat damage to Endeavour’s structure, following the removal of the damaged tiles from her belly during OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility) post flight processing.

The results add increased justification to NASA’s decision not to carry out an on orbit repair during STS-118, which was the subject of some critical media reports – much to the annoyance of some shuttle managers.

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Endeavour is undergoing the dual post-flight and pre-flight STS-123 processing inside of OPF-2, following her first flight in nearly five years. The mission was a huge success, with all mission goals achieved, along with the debuting of both the SSPTS (Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System) and the new three-string GPS.

Four EVAs were carried out, with all of STS-118’s International Space Station (ISS) assembly tasks completed, earning the praise of shuttle manager Wayne Hale.

‘…spectacularly pleased with the wonderful mission we completed. It was truly an extraordinary flight. All planned work was completed, plus extra activities. The crew, Flight Control Team, training folks and entire team are to be congratulated,’ noted Hale to his team during a Shuttle Stand-up/Integration meeting.

‘Everyone should take time to reflect on what a great job we have and how very lucky we are to be involved in this endeavor. It’s a great time to be part of this organization. We have many more flights ahead of us.’

However, the mission only gained increased mass media attention once tile damage near Endeavour’s starboard Landing Gear Door was revealed.

Resulting from a small piece of foam liberating from a LO2 feedline bracket, 58 seconds during ascent, before unluckily bouncing off the aft strut of the External Tank and deflecting up on to Endeavour’s TPS (Thermal Protection System), the damage was spotted during Flight Day 3’s Rbar Pitch Maneuver (RPM).

Imagery from the RPM was analyzed on the ground, leading to the call for a Focused Inspection – the first since STS-114 – which utilized the OBSS (Orbiter Boom Sensor System) suite of lasers and cameras.

That provided teams on the ground with a 3D map of the gouge, allowing for computational models and test articles of the damage to be re-created on the ground for ArcJet testing, which simulated how the area would perform during re-entry.

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Despite the damage being historically less than that previously observed on orbiters which have landed safely, several days of evaluations took place, allowing a full overview of options to be provided. This took place ahead of the final MMT (Mission Management Team) meeting that consisted of over 200 engineers pouring over the thermal fluid dynamics data and flight history, allowing them to provide their assessments for the MMT decision.

Only one department (the conservative JSC Engineering) and two engineers (one USA, one Lockheed Martin – the latter withdrawing his opinion a day before the MMT) dissented against leaving the damage ‘as is’ – with everyone else concuring that a repair was either not required, or could have made the issue worse.

Despite the open evaluation process, including summarized overviews via the daily MSB (Mission Status Briefing) press briefings, some sections of the media questioned the rationale behind the decision not to repair – and also why it took so long to come to a decision – in some cases using letters from their readership as the basis of questioning the conclusion of the MMT.

This in particular annoyed Steve Poulos, NASA’s orbiter project manager, who – one day after the MMT decision was made – sent an e-mail about his frustrations to NASA PAO (Public Affairs Office). That e-mail was copied – or forwarded – to a large section of the shuttle workforce.

‘I feel a need to vent a little relative to some of the articles today (the day after the MMT decision) and the comments from ‘outside experts’ who believe we should repair just because we can; or, we took so long to make a decision, therefore, there must be a problem, etc,’ wrote Poulos.

‘After spending 4-plus years on this Program and being integrally involved with all aspects of the process we use to clear the vehicle as safe for re-entry, we executed everything exactly how we planned before RTF (Return To Flight).

‘The damage was identified during RPM photography, a focused inspection was requested, the imagery (laser and visual) was used to develop our analytical and test article models, the analysis was performed exactly as we practiced (with some minor mods), and all the results were synthesized to allow for a high confidence recommendation.

‘The fact that we took 4-5 days is partly due to the amount of work required, but it also included the independent reviews we requested to ensure are methodology was accurate.

‘I am personally amazed at how well all the Teams performed (DAT, Team 4, Flight Controllers, MMT, etc.). I think everyone put the right level of emphasis and concern into this damage that it deserved, and the discussions, questions, alternate opinions expressed, and conclusions were all right on the mark.

‘We have trained ourselves to work with data and not assumptions, and this is what will make us successful as we continue to explore.’

The repair – or return ‘as-is’ – decision was never based around the safety of the vehicle and crew, with the worst case scenario being a 10 week repair schedule in the OPF. That was later downgraded.

However, the actual result of how Endeavour performed during re-entry has only now been fully revealed, following the removal of all the damaged tiles, enabling a closer look at the underlying structure that the tiles are there to protect the orbiter against the heat of re-entry.

No damage, or even any evidence of heating, was found on the structure.

‘Engineering has inspected the orbiter structure underneath the impacted tile beneath the right hand wing and have found no evidence of heat related,’ noted processing information this week. ‘No further testing will be required.’

Over the years, NASA managers have usually had to deal with negative media with either polite responses or silence. This now appears to be changing, both internally and externally.

Publically, a recent opinion editorial in the Houston Chronicle, which was filled with inaccuracies and – for lack of a better word, bile – about NASA, received an open letter from Johnson Space Center director, Michael Coats, putting the record straight.

Internally, Hale has also started to make his feelings known, targeting the same op-ed, during the latest Shuttle Stand-up/Integration meeting.

‘In regards to a recent article in a local newspaper that the facts were incorrect…any reasonably informed reader would recognize the errors in fact and also should understand the criticism of NASA’s performance in the article is not well founded,’ Hale said, with his comments transcribed into the Stand-Up report.

‘(Mr Hale) recommended folks in the Shuttle Program not be concerned about this or other criticisms in the media that are negative or unfounded, and just concentrate on their work to help NASA continue operating successfully.’

Negative media for NASA is nothing new, but recent trends appear to be verging more and more on sensationalizing issues that are worked on most shuttle missions, a norm for ensuring safe flight for the shuttle.

Thankfully, it appears NASA management no longer is going to just sit back and take it.

L2 members: All documentation – from which the above article has quoted snippets – is available in full in the related L2 sections, updated live.


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