Discovery Docks with Space Station The Space Shuttle Discovery has docked with the International Space Station. In doing so, it did a controlled back flip to enable cameras on the ISS to photograph its belly for damage. So far, there is no indication that the shuttle was damaged on liftoff.
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Discovery Docks with Space Station

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Discovery Docks with Space Station

Discovery Docks with Space Station

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

New images show that the space shuttle Discovery did not sustain any significant damage during Tuesday's launch. That's the good news. The bad news is that despite major efforts on NASA's part, foam still broke off during launch, and one of the pieces was quite large. The space agency said yesterday it would not launch again until the problem is fixed. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

You can see the foam in footage taken from the shuttle as it's leaving the atmosphere. The foam tumbles away, apparently missing the shuttle. Two teams have now analyzed the data and conclude that the piece weighed about a pound, roughly half as heavy as the foam that fatally damaged the Columbia shuttle. NASA had predicted that no foam larger than a few hundredths of a pound would come off this time. John Shannon, the shuttle manager, was asked today how close the foam had come to hitting Discovery.

Mr. JOHN SHANNON (Shuttle Manager): It doesn't matter how close it came to Discovery. We are treating this extremely serious, and, like we've said, we're going to go fix this before we go flying.

KESTENBAUM: The foam is used to keep the hydrogen and oxygen fuel cold enough to remain in a liquid state, and it helps to keep ice from forming on the tank. Florida is humid, and ice itself would be a major debris hazard. Shannon said they had only seen foam come off this part of the tank once before, and it had been blamed on a repair that had been done in the area. Why it happened this time is still a mystery. Mike Sutton, an engineer at the University of South Carolina, says designing foam that stays put is hard.

Mr. MIKE SUTTON (University of South Carolina): You're asking them to have a good, strong interface between it and the steel at cold temperatures under extreme vibration environments, and you're asking it to hold up. That's not an easy job. I mean, that's just a very difficult engineering problem. The science of that in itself is probably fairly unique.

KESTENBAUM: NASA has learned a lot about debris from the new cameras it installed, but those cameras have also shined light on things that were in some ways easier not to know about. Take, for instance, a piece of footage that showed a small one-and-a-half-inch piece of heat-protective tile that had come off. It was in a sensitive area protecting one of the landing gear wheels. New pictures now indicate the damage was probably minor, but if it hadn't been, NASA would have faced a series of grim options: one, let the astronauts try to land on a possibly damaged shuttle, pretty scary; two, try to fix the shuttle with new repair techniques and hope for the best; or three, ditch Discovery, let it burn up in the atmosphere and send up a rescue vehicle. NASA has thought about this one. One problem is that the rescue vehicle itself could get damaged.

Mr. SHANNON: That plan, I think, is a very last choice because once you do that, the space program as we know it won't exist.

KESTENBAUM: Fortunately, it doesn't look like NASA will have to make that decision this time. Joe Rothenberg is a former associate administrator for spaceflight. He says while it might have been easier in some ways to be ignorant of every little scrape, it's always better to know. He sat in the control room for 19 launches. When the shuttles landed, he would sometimes walk around and look at the tiles. Occasionally one was missing; often some were scuffed. He would rather have known all that before the shuttles tried to land.

Mr. JOE ROTHENBERG (Former Associate Administrator for Spaceflight): I think about that a lot. I thought about that in Columbia. If they had information, at least they could have tried something. If you don't have any information, then you don't even have a chance.

KESTENBAUM: Ideally the next generation of spacecraft will not have to deal with falling foam or damaged tile. One proposal for NASA's replacement vehicle looks very much like the old Apollo system. Astronauts sit in a capsule that rides on top of the rocket, so nothing can fall and hit it. Its underside could be protected during launch. And instead of landing on wings, the astronauts could simply come down the old-fashioned way, in a capsule with a parachute, maybe into the ocean, not as dignified but, Rothenberg says, possibly safer.

Mr. ROTHENBERG: I mean, the shuttle is an elegant vehicle. I mean, it's an engineering marvel. I think anybody--if you look at it, it's a launch vehicle, a spacecraft and an aircraft, and it acts as all three. On the other hand, as we've proven, its complexity is its worst enemy.

KESTENBAUM: David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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