NASA Prepares Discovery for Launch

NASA plans for a July 1 launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, though some of the space agency's engineers aren't in support of that launch decision. Guests: Nell Boyce, technology reporter for NPR

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we'll talk about science in Iraq, but up first: NASA.

NASA has set a July 1 launch date for the space shuttle, despite concerns expressed by some of its own engineers and managers, who say the safety problems caused by falling foam have not been satisfactorily resolved.

Joining me now to talk about that decision is Nell Boyce, Technology Reporter at NPR in Washington. Welcome to the program, Nell.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Thanks for having me on the show.

FLATOW: Let's back up a bit. It's been about a year now, right? - since the last shuttle flight, why - what's been going on in the interim? Why so long?

BOYCE: Well, to understand what NASA has been doing over the last year, it's helpful to go back, actually, three years, and remember what happened during the Columbia disaster. When the Space Shuttle Columbia took off, a piece of insulating foam fell off its external fuel tank. That hit the shuttle, damaged its heat shield, and then the shuttle burnt up as it reentered the earth's atmosphere.

NASA officials do not want that to happen again, and that's why they've spent the last year working out some more problems with foam falling off the tank.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Now, there has been some dissension in the ranks about the shuttle. Despite safety worries from some respected advisers, NASA is going to go ahead and launch this.

BOYCE: That's true. That's true. I mean, there's one thing that everyone agrees on and that's that foam is going to continue to fall off the tank, the question is what kind of foam. People who say we should go, think that the most likely scenario is very small pieces of foam - kind of, popcorn-size pieces that aren't going to cause any damage.

But there are some important NASA officials - namely its top safety official and one of the chief engineers - who think there's a chance of some significant foam falling off a region of the tank known as the ice frost ramps, and at a meeting last weekend, they expressed those concerns.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. So, why are they going ahead anyhow, if there's this, you know, this concern out there?

BOYCE: Well, there are differences of opinion on how big of an issue, foam falling from this area, would be. And, plus, they don't really have a fix for it. You know, I mean, they'd like to get a shuttle up. It's been almost a year since the last one. They have made significant changes to the tank already, and some people are saying, well, since we don't have a fix for this problem, why don't we fly the fixes we've already done, see how that goes, and also, they don't think the crew is going to be in any danger.

FLATOW: So, you go up with the shuttle you have, not the shuttle you want.

BOYCE: Basically, yeah.

FLATOW: Basically. And if they go up and discover that there is foam damage from the foam on the wings, what recourse is there?

BOYCE: Well, they probably would discover that, because they've spent a lot of time putting sensors and cameras - they're going to have the crew inspect the shuttle once they get up there. So they think that if there is a problem to the heat shield, they will see it, so it won't be like Columbia where they didn't know there was a problem.

And if there is a problem, they can either try to repair it, or they can put the crew in the International Space Station and then send up another spacecraft to rescue them.

FLATOW: So they actually have - the space station is, now, in part of the planning if something goes wrong in the space shuttle launch.

BOYCE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they anticipate that in an emergency situation, they could have the crew of the space shuttle hang out in the space station for up to 80 days. And they already have another shuttle that's already in preparation for launch in August, so they think that that is an option.

Now, all that said, they don't really want to do that. I mean, that's not really something that they would look forward to or that they think would be a good idea. But it is something that's there, and NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, said that played a big role in his decision to launch on July 1.

FLATOW: Of course, if you then go for the next shuttle to rescue them, and that has a problem, too, it's getting pretty crowded up there in the space station, and no way to bring them all back.

BOYCE: Well, that was an issue raised in the various press conferences. You know, people pointed out that because they don't have a fix for this problem, you know, would you send a shuttle up there with, basically, the same design?

FLATOW: Right, right.

BOYCE: But, you know, there really is a feeling within NASA that this was kind of a close call. You know, I mean, they haven't seen a very serious problem from this area of the tank before. They've had 114 flights. And so, you know, the administrator felt that this was a risk that was within the range of other risks they take all the time.

FLATOW: So, given that there have been two accidents and 114 flights, your risk is now one in 57 - something like that.

BOYCE: That's what they say. Although, frankly, you know, with the new, improved ways of observing the Orbiter, the new understanding of the foam, some people think it's safer now than it has been.

FLATOW: You know, but originally, the risk was one in a thousand, so you never know what could happen. (Unintelligible) raise those risks.

BOYCE: That is true. That is true. And, I mean, it's quite possible that a week from now, you know, we'll forget that we even knew the term ice frost ramps. I mean, we might be talking about some totally different thing that nobody even thought of.

In fact, that's what the astronauts said in their briefings. You know, they've said that they want to go. I mean, they're very much supporting this decision to launch.

FLATOW: Well, that's their job. That's why they're astronauts. They want to go up - can't blame them for that. But what happens if there is a problem with this? What does it mean for the future of the rest of the shuttle program?

BOYCE: Well, it would be a big deal. I mean, some of the folks who were opposing launching without making these fixes, said that, you know, if you were to lose a shuttle, I mean, that would just have an enormous impact on the program.

The shuttle is supposed to be retired in about four years. Administrators want to see 16 or 17 more flights, so that they can, maybe, repair the Hubbell space telescope and complete the International Space Station. But, if there's a real problem on the way up, NASA's administrator has said that he might just shut the program down because he doesn't think they continue if they only have two shuttles left.

FLATOW: Right. And so, the window for this starts July first and goes how long?

BOYCE: It goes to about mid-July, and then they have another window that's going to open up at the end of August.

FLATOW: I'm betting fourth of July, here.

BOYCE: Well, we're all hoping it'll go up July first, as planned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, thank you Nell, for taking time to talk with us, and good luck. We'll check back with you.

BOYCE: Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Nell Boyce, Technology Reporter at our NPR studios in Washington.

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