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NASA: Foam repair may have caused piece to break away

By Associated Press
Published August 6, 2005

SPACE CENTER, Houston - NASA is investigating whether repairs to a small crack in the foam on Discovery's fuel tank may have caused a 1-pound section of the insulation to break off during liftoff, officials said late Friday.

The shallow crack - just six-tenths of an inch long and two-tenths of an inch wide - was sanded away at the Louisiana manufacturing plant before the tank was shipped to Cape Canaveral. No new foam was applied to the spot.

It's a common repair procedure, NASA officials said.

Officials said the repair was made to the approximate area where the big chunk of foam came loose during Discovery's launch on July 26. But they said there is no evidence yet that the repair contributed to the foam loss.

The external fuel tank was redesigned following the 2003 Columbia tragedy, but no improvements were made to the area where the foam came loose.

Unlike Columbia, which was smacked in the wing by foam that broke off during liftoff, this large chunk of foam missed Discovery. Nonetheless, NASA has suspended all future space shuttle flights until the problem is resolved.

Among the many theories being investigated, besides the crack: whether a mistake was made in the manual spraying of the foam, whether the new environmentally friendlier foam that was used in that area was defective, whether too many people handled the foam and tank, and whether the foam was damaged during the tank's shipment to Florida.

Space station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier, who is heading up the investigation, said he expects to get his first technical briefing on the matter Tuesday.

The space shuttle, meanwhile, made a long overdue trash pickup at the international space station on Friday - the first in 2 1/2 years.

The Discovery astronauts hoisted a giant garbage can holding 5,000 pounds of broken machines, discarded equipment, empty food cartons and other junk into the shuttle's cargo hold.

It was one of the last chores before the shuttle pulls away from the station today after more than a week of linked flight.

The two space station occupants were glad to get rid of the stuff since it left them with a much tidier home. One of them, astronaut Sergei Krikalev, said before Discovery arrived that the place looked as messy as Russia's old Mir station.

The Columbia disaster in 2003 had prevented shuttles from returning to the space station until now, forcing the crews to rely on smaller and less frequent Russian supply ships for garbage disposal.

[Last modified August 6, 2005, 01:43:02]

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