MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
NASA has hit another glitch in its efforts to get space shuttle Discovery off the ground. NASA officials are hoping for a Fourth of July launch, but they're worried about a small piece of insulating foam that has fallen off the shuttle's fuel tank.
NPR's Nell Boyce is at the press center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and she filed this report.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
The shuttle's fuel tank looks like a big orange bullet. It's about the size of a grain silo. It holds hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The fuel is super cold and that can cause ice to form that might damage the tank's thin layer of insulating foam.
So every time the tank gets drained or filled, it gets inspected by some guys known as the Ice Team. They use cameras and telescopes to look for buildups of ice, as well as any cracks in the foam. This time, they spotted a crack about three inches long. It was in some foam that covers a metal bracket.
The team looked around and there, sitting on the launch pad, was a small triangular chunk of foam that had fallen off. John Shannon heads up NASA's Mission Management Team, or MMT.
Mr. JOHN SHANNON (Mission Management Team, NASA): They brought it in to the MMT and showed us. And a lot of people that had seen the picture, it looked like a very large piece of foam and when you got it, it looked like this small piece of bread crust, is kind of what it looked like.
BOYCE: Now, falling foam is what doomed space shuttle Columbia three years ago. A piece of foam fell off during launch and fatally damaged the heat shield on the left wing. The shuttle burned up when it reentered the earth's atmosphere. So any problem with the foam is of great concern to NASA, even though Shannon says the chunk of foam that fell off this time would have been too small to do that kind of damage during launch.
Mr. SHANNON: I think it would not have gotten as much attention prior to Columbia as it is getting now.
BOYCE: Still the team wants to know if missing this piece of foam will be a problem in terms of ice forming. And they want to make sure there's no additional cracks in the same area of the tank. They're analyzing all of the pictures. Tonight they'll decide whether they need to go up on a movable platform to actually put their hands on the tank and see if it needs repair.
Launch Director Michael Leinbach says they're prepared to do that.
Mr. MICHAEL LEINBACH (Launch Director, NASA): Going hands-on is an easy thing for us to do. We have a platform that rides up and down the face of the rotating service structure that will get the team to this area in fine shape. So you can get right up next to this area where the foam is missing. So getting to it is not an issue, but it would be a schedule hit to us.
BOYCE: NASA is eager to get the shuttle up and have everything go smoothly. They've only had one other shuttle launch in the last three years. They'd like to get the shuttle running more often because it's supposed to be retired just four years from now, in 2010. And NASA needs at least 16 more launches to complete the International Space Station.
But John Shannon says they're not going to let themselves be affected by schedule pressures.
Mr. SHANNON: We'll take the day and go get on the right platform and go put hands on and take a look at it. And then, if we need to do a repair, we'll take the time to go do the repair and that's the way we'll do business.
BOYCE: If the shuttle doesn't go up tomorrow, NASA will have another chance on Wednesday. And if they have to do any fixes, they can delay as long as July 19th. After that, the launch window will close until the end of August.
Nell Boyce, NPR News, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.