About 5,300 special heat-resistant bricks broke off a flame trench wall of launchpad 39 A at Kennedy Space Center during the space shuttle launch on May 31, hurling some bricks more than 1,800 feet. Engineers assessing the damage said on Monday they are confident the flame trench can be repaired in time for NASA’s next mission, the Oct. 8 launch of shuttle Atlantis on a flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA allowed journalists to survey the damage to the pad, as well as a heavily damaged security fence around the pad perimeter, with bricks scattered across a wide area around the pad.
The flame trench diverts exhaust to flow out both sides of the launchpad. The missing bricks exposed an irregular area of the concrete wall measuring roughly 20 feet by 75 feet. New bricks cannot be manufactured in time to support the Hubble mission, but engineers believe the trench can be repaired by stripping away additional bricks around the damage area, erecting a steel mesh framework and then spraying on a thick coating of a heat resistant covering.
NASA still does not know exactly what caused the flame trench to come apart and why it broke now, after decades of use. The launch pads were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s for the Saturn rockets that sent the Apollo missions to the moon.
The space agency is inspecting its other launch pad, 39 B, to see whether it, too, has flaws. Both launchpads will be needed for the Hubble mission, as a second shuttle needs to be ready to go, as post-Columbia flight guidelines require a backup shuttle to serve as a recue ship for any mission not going to the International Space Station, where the crew could take refuge if any damage occurred that would prohibit the shuttle from landing.
Previously, NASA said, the worst damage to a launch pad was the loss of 800 bricks from the flame trench at Pad B during Challenger’s doomed liftoff in 1986.
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News Sources: AP, CBS News Space Place