Fri, Jul 29, 2005 - Page 7 News List

NASA grounds its shuttles after debris mars latest mission

AP , SPACE CENTER, HOUSTON, TEXAS

NASA grounded future shuttle flights because a big chunk of insulating foam flew off Discovery's fuel tank during liftoff -- as it did in Columbia's doomed mission -- but this time apparently missed the spacecraft.

"Until we're ready, we won't go fly again. I don't know when that might be," shuttle program manager Bill Parsons told reporters in a briefing on Wednesday evening.

He and other managers do not believe the flying debris that snapped off the external fuel tank harmed Discovery, threatening a safe return of its seven astronauts.

"Call it luck or whatever, it didn't harm the orbiter," Parsons said.

Officials said that if the foam had broken away earlier in flight -- when the atmosphere is thicker, increasing the acceleration and likelihood of impact -- it could have caused catastrophic damage to Discovery.

"We think that would have been really bad, so it's not acceptable," said Parsons' deputy, Wayne Hale.

He said every indication so far is that Discovery is safe for its return home.

The loss of a chunk of debris, a vexing problem NASA thought had been fixed, represents a tremendous setback to a space program that has spent two-and-a-half years and over US$1 billion trying to make the 20-year-old shuttles safe to fly.

The piece of foam flew off Discovery's redesigned tank just two minutes after what initially looked like a perfect liftoff on Tuesday. Officials do not believe the foam hit the shuttle, but they plan a closer inspection of the spacecraft in the next few days.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin promised late on Wednesday that the space agency will make any needed modifications before shuttles launch again.

Engineers believe the irregularly sized piece of foam was just a bit smaller than the 0.75kg chunk that smashed into Columbia's left wing during liftoff in 2003. The hole let in superheated gases that caused the shuttle to break up on its return to Earth.

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