It’s been a long hard road to bring the space shuttle fleet back to service after falling foam led to the destruction of Columbia. Although Discovery launched again last year, hopes sunk after the external fuel tank shed foam again, even after all the new safety measures taken by NASA. Once again, NASA thinks it’s ready for launch. This time Discovery will blast off on July 1, to link up with the International Space Station. But the launch decision didn’t come easy.
NASA flight controllers announced on Saturday, June 17 that the space shuttle Discovery’s launch window opens up on July 1 at 3:48 p.m. EDT (2048 GMT). If all goes well, Discovery will blast off from Cape Canaveral with 7 astronauts on board.
The shuttle, designated STS-121, will spend a total of 12 days off Earth, resupplying the International Space Station, and further testing new safety improvements made in the wake of the Columbia accident.
According to NASA chief Mike Griffin:
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“We had two full days of an intensive Flight Readiness Review,” said Administrator Michael Griffin. “It was spirited and one of the most open, yet non-adversarial meetings I’ve seen since returning to NASA.”
The debate focused on what to do about the further risk of falling foam. Although workers removed 16 kilos (35 pounds) of foam from potential danger spots, the agency can’t rule out the possibility that more foam will dislodge.
To make the decision even more controversial, representatives from the agency’s safety and chief engineer offices said that the shuttle shouldn’t fly until the risky “ice ramps” have been redesigned to lower the chance of shed foam. Even the Shuttle Program manager said the fleet shouldn’t return to flight until NASA comes up with a new design. Everyone signed on to clear the shuttle for launch; however, after noting their objections for the record.
Unfortunately, the shuttle program is running out of time. The fleet is supposed to retired in 2010, after construction of the International Space Station has been completed. By delaying the return to flight past July, it’ll put additional pressure on the shuttle to launch more frequently to make up lost ground.
In the end, Griffin made the decision to go ahead with the launch, balancing the risk and objections of the team with the pressure to complete the station. He ominously admitted that another loss of the shuttle, like Columbia or Challenger would end the program.