NASA Setback: Shuttle Fleet Grounded Indefinitely

Two and a half years and $1 billion later NASA still has problems with foam insulation breaking loose from shuttle fuel tanks, a problem which was fatal to the space shuttle Columbia.

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) – The shuttle Discovery, like Columbia, shed a large chunk of foam debris during liftoff that could have threatened the return of the seven astronauts, NASA said Wednesday.

While there are no signs the piece of insulation damaged the spacecraft, NASA is grounding future shuttle flights until the hazard can be fixed.

“Call it luck or whatever, it didn’t harm the orbiter,” said shuttle program manager Bill Parsons. If the foam had broken away earlier in flight, when the atmosphere is thicker increasing the 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. But he said early signs are Discovery is safe for its return home.I think “that would be really bad” is the understatement of the year. ‘That would be the end of NASA as we know it’ would be a better analogy. Much as you wouldn’t keep pouring cash into a clunker automobile, it’s time to admit that the shuttle fleet is end-of-life and start work on a new space vehicle design.

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