NASA grounded the remaining space shuttle fleet today after video of yesterday’s Discovery launch revealed that a large piece of insulation foam had fallen off the fuel tank. The debris did not hit the Discovery orbiter but the video footage was a frightening reminder of a similar incident that led to the Columbia disaster in 2002 which claimed the lives of all seven astronauts onboard. In that accident a chunk of foam struck Columbia’s left wing. NASA and independent reviewers concluded that hot gases entered the orbiter through the damaged area during reentry, leading to its disintegration.
New measures meant to fix the insulation foam problem apparently failed. Several chunks of the material fell off Discovery’s fuel tank during launch, including one piece over two feet long. As the fuel tank drifted away from the shuttle as they neared orbit, crew members took still images of an area of missing foam. Both crew and NASA engineers will continue the inspection of Discovery over the next few days. So far it appears Discovery was unharmed during launch.
With several ground-based imaging systems trained on Discovery during launch and new technology onboard for the crew to inspect their own vehicle, the safety measures put into place for the STS-114 mission have been unprecedented. However, NASA officials stated in a press briefing earlier today that they will not launch another shuttle until the insulation foam problem has been fixed. What this may mean for the future of the space shuttle program is unclear. The fleet is expected to be retired in 2010.
Future construction on the International Space Station (ISS) depends in part on the space shuttle to ferry equipment, supplies, and new modules. Construction has already been delayed because of the Columbia disaster. Over budget and behind schedule, ISS has not yet realized its original goals, which included a full complement of scientists to conduct cutting-edge research. The smaller crews onboard ISS must spend a large portion of their time on station operations and maintenance rather than scientific research.
NASA and industry partners are developing a next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to replace the space shuttle fleet. The first CEV is not expected to be completed until the middle of next decade, leaving a gap in ability to send humans to low-Earth orbit. This gap might be filled by technology being developed by privately-owned companies and other countries, including Russia and China, although no formal arrangements have been considered or made yet.