No shuttle launch this year, NASA says


ORLANDO, Fla. - The space shuttle will not be launched again until March, at the earliest, because engineers need time to figure out why foam keeps breaking off the ships' external fuel tanks during flight, NASA announced yesterday.

The agency is considering various fixes, including removing and reapplying foam in one area that shed the largest piece of debris during the July 26 launch of shuttle Discovery.

But extensive evaluation and study are needed, making any launch attempt this year impossible, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for spaceflight operations.

"We're just starting to make sense of the data and understand where things are coming together," he said.

He spoke yesterday at a news conference along with agency administrator Michael D. Griffin, who responded to criticism this week of NASA's management and engineering practices.

The critical comments became public Wednesday in the final report of a task group that monitored the agency's return-to-flight effort after the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The group's full report gave NASA mostly high marks for improving safety. But seven of the 26 members issued a harsh minority report concluding that the agency had failed to change fundamentally. NASA still accepts risks without understanding them or even knowing how to evaluate them properly, the minority concluded.

Griffin said pushing the next shuttle mission to March is evidence that the agency is taking a conservative approach. While not addressing specific criticisms, he expressed confidence in his top shuttle managers.

Though Discovery's tank shed foam, Griffin pointed out that fewer pieces came off than in previous launches.

Most of the pieces were small, but a nearly 1-pound chunk broke off a ramp on the tank that covers some cable trays and fuel lines. The large piece did not hit the orbiter.

A piece of foam fatally damaged Columbia during its launch, causing the orbiter to break apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, on its way to a Florida landing at the end of its mission. Seven astronauts were killed.

Since taking over as NASA's top administrator, Griffin has welcomed criticism while maintaining that the decision-making power rests squarely with him and his managers.

Discovery's launch last month was the first since the Columbia tragedy, and the ship landed safely in California last week after bad weather kept it from returning to Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttle is expected to begin its cross-country trip back home today atop a modified 747 jet. The plane will need to stop for fuel, and possibly to avoid weather problems along the way. But the shuttle could be back in Florida as early as tomorrow afternoon.

Now that NASA is targeting a March launch, Gerstenmaier said it would use Discovery for the next mission instead of shuttle Atlantis as previously planned. This avoids the need to launch Atlantis on back-to-back flights next year. The ship is the only one suited to carry a large piece of the space station - a truss - to the outpost on the mission after next.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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