Next shuttle launch: March 2006
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 18, 2005
As expected, NASA managers today announced the next space shuttle flight will be delayed until at least next March to give engineers time to fix the external tank foam insulation problems that marred shuttle Discovery's launch last month.
At the same time, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said he welcomed
highly critical observations included in the final report of the
Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group, an advisory panel charged with
assessing the agency's implementation of post-Columbia safety
Griffin told reporters today that he asked panel chairmen Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey to include the group's observations in the task group's final report, "because frankly, I think we would do a disservice to ourselves and to our stakeholders and, frankly, to the taxpayers by creating an appearance that we do not wish to hear what people have to say if it should be negative."
"I think we do ourselves proud when we take all the comments that are given, we study them, we evaluate and we investigate them and we decide which ones make sense to us and that we wish to move forward on and which ones where we don't think the advisers got it right. I think that's the proper way to treat advice.
"I have conferred with the folks as recently as yesterday who provided those comments to us and I believe they fully understand the spirit of openness and honest acceptance that we're trying to convey to their issues."
But Griffin, as he has done on earlier occasions, made it clear it's up to NASA managers, not an advisory panel, to decide how the civil space program should be conducted.
"I've tried to put out a message on a number of occasions that NASA line management is in charge of the civil space program," Griffin said. "NASA will decide what to do with the shuttle and other issues. So we are accountable and responsible for what we do here in the civil space program.
"Advisory groups advise. We welcome the advice because it is very hard, when you're immersed in the day to day struggle to figure out the right thing, do the right thing and make the hard decisions, it's very hard to pull back and look at things from a big picture perspective. And so NASA often uses knowledgeable but external advisers to help us shape our decision making.
"But at the end of the day, those groups are not accountable and not responsible for what they suggest," Griffin said. "They provide information that we use to evaluate our course of action and that's what we will do with the Stafford-Covey task group report or any other report we commission."
Bill Gerstenmaier, newly appointed head of space operations at NASA headquarters, said the decision to push the next shuttle flight back to the March time frame was unavoidable given the work needed to fix the external tank foam shedding problem.
Because of a NASA-imposed requirement to launch the next flight in daylight, and to ensure the tank is jettisoned in daylight to permit photo documentation, NASA only had two launch windows left this year: Sept. 22-25 and Nov. 7-10. Another brief window was available Jan. 4-7, 2006.
"The last time I talked to you, I said September was pretty unlikely from a launch opportunities standpoint," Gerstenmaier said today. "We then looked at November and looked at January and kind of from an overall standpoint, we think really March 4 is kind of the time frame that we're looking at."
The target window opens March 4 and closes March 19. Engineers are hopeful the opening can be moved up one day, to 3:46 p.m. March 3, but that remains to be seen. The next window opens May 3 and runs through May 22 and the window after that runs from June 30 to July 19.
The new launch target "was driven by a variety of reasons," Gerstenmaier said. "One was the foam investigation, it looks like we're going to have to do some repair at Michoud (La.) on the tanks and then that will kind of pushes us into the first of the year."
Engineers still don't know what caused a large piece of foam to separate from a so-called "PAL ramp" on Discovery's external tank. But NASA now plans to ship the next tanks in the launch sequence back to Lockheed Martin's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans where the PAL ramps likely will be removed and then rebuilt from scratch.
One benefit of the launch delay is that NASA can now use Discovery for the next mission instead of Atlantis as originally planned. The original plan called for Atlantis to be used for the second and third post-Columbia missions, in large part because Atlantis is lighter than Discovery and the third payload is made up of heavy solar array components.
"Now we can switch the launch order," Gerstenmaier said. "Instead of going Atlantis-Atlantis and having to turn that same vehicle around, we can now go Discovery, Atlantis and then back to Discovery and that's a much better overall flight sequence."
The foam problems driving the launch delay were an unexpected and embarrassing setback for NASA. The agency spent two-and-a-half years recovering from the Columbia disaster, addressing the issue of foam debris shedding and beefing up safety across the board.
Despite the foam problems and the critical nature of the Stafford-Covey minority report, Griffin expressed confidence in the shuttle program's management.
"Let me address the more important question of is there some crisis in confidence. No, there's not," Griffin said. "There may be, there may very well be, in accordance with the comments made in the Stafford-Covey report, some issues that we need to address regarding engineering process and engineer management, engineering discipline, those sorts of things.
"We've worked hard at NASA over the last two-and-a-half years to improve that situation that led to the loss of Columbia. But we don't suppose that we're done and one of the reasons why I was very receptive to the minority report was because we can't get done unless we're willing to listen to all of the hard truths. So we're going to be looking at our engineering processes.
"But let me illustrate what I see. For good or ill - and obviously it was for ill - we in NASA didn't look in detail at foam shedding from the tank for 113 flights. And shame on us. Absolutely, everyone in and out of NASA learned a lesson, I hope, about that. And that is an incident, that is a process that will be examined in textbooks for years to come. We flew 113 flights without seriously addressing the issue of how much foam was coming off the tank, why, where and what it was doing.
"OK. So on the first flight after being hit very hard, as hard as an agency can be hit by a mistake with the loss of seven lives ... on the first flight after we started really paying attention to the foam, almost everything we did worked. There are, I think, five areas where it didn't work right. And one of them with the PAL ramp foam was a big piece and it was very embarrassing. But ... almost everything did work right.
"So do I have a crisis of confidence in the team that made almost every thing work right? Of course not," Griffin said. "We're going to take the data and see where it leads us and we're going to fix those things that we didn't get right. But In a very important sense, this was the first try that the tank team, shuttle team, the NASA team ever really made to reduce the foam shedding to a minimal and acceptable level. I think they did pretty darn well for the first try. And that's how I'd like people to view it."