Crack in Foam Could Delay Shuttle Again
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, last night, find a crack in the foam that covers the space shuttle's external fuel tank. Mission managers are sorting out whether this is something that can be fixed on the launch pad, or whether it means further delays for the launch.
Joining me from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is NPR's David Kestenbaum.
And David, is this a big deal?
DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:
We don't know yet. The higher-ups are huddling over this right now. But remember that during the Columbia space shuttle accident, a piece of foam broke off the fuel tank and hit the shuttle's left wing on the way up, and it actually punched a hole. And when Columbia tried to reenter the atmosphere it broke up. And that was, you know, a pretty small piece of foam, by sort of human standards, it was about the size of a briefcase. But remember the shuttle gets going really fast. It goes from zero to a hundred miles an hour in something like five seconds.
So there is a lot of concern about foam. They've been trying to take off as much foam as possible off the external fuel tank, whatever they think they can get away with not having. After Columbia, they took off that problem area. But on the next launch, another piece came off, so they took them a year to fix that; which is why this only the second launch since Columbia, three years ago.
And they need - you know, they do need foam because inside that tank - this is a huge, you know, orange fuel tank; it's like the size of a grain silo or something. And it has ultra-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen in it, and so they need to put some insulating foam on the outside. In particular, so they don't get ice that forms, and that could break off.
KESTENBAUM: So it is - it's worrisome.
BRAND: Yeah. And how big is this crack?
KESTENBAUM: It is four to five inches long, and an eighth to a quarter of an inch wide - is what we're hearing. And it's sort of near the top of the tank, which is the part you would worry about, because it could fall off and fall down, and hit the shuttle. It's on a liquid oxygen feed-line. So, a line that carries the liquid oxygen into the tank. Which is a - you know, a line - you think of something like a power cable. It's 17 inches wide, this line. And the foam covers a bracket that holds the line to the tank.
BRAND: You say that NASA officials are huddling, now. What are their options?
KESTENBAUM: They could try and fix it on the launch pad. Apparently, they can bring out the scaffolding and get to this area. I think it depends if they feel like they understand what caused this. If they feel like, gee, where did that crack come from, then, you know, then I think all bets are off. You know, they would definitely want to understand why it was that this happened.
But the crack apparently was not there on Saturday. And they were trying to launch on Sunday, and they filled the tank with the ultra cold stuff. And then they had to take the stuff out of the tank. And then on Sunday the crack was found. So I think there's some evidence that maybe it was due to the, you know, the change in temperature by loading it with the liquid oxygen, and hydrogen.
KESTENBAUM: So, but until they sort that out it's unclear.
BRAND: Well, they may have to remove the shuttle from the launch pad to fix it?
KESTENBAUM: That is, I think, that is one option. But, you know, they point out they have had problems with foam on the launch pad before. For instance, on one earlier launch, there was problem with a woodpecker who was very determined to peck his way into the fuel tank. And that left quite a number of holes in the foam. Which is just sort of, you know, the foam is like cork, or, you know, Styrofoam. And it comes off quite easily.
So we're hoping for an update soon and we'll update you.
BRAND: great. Thank you.
KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.
BRAND: That's NPR's David Kestenbaum at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.