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NASA delays flight for shuttle checkup

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000


CAPE CANAVERAL -- No one knows better than the managers of the nation's space agency that big problems can be caused by tiny pieces of hardware.

With that in mind, NASA scrubbed Thursday's scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery when a review of data from a previous launch found a single bolt 21/4 inches out of place.

"We don't know the magnitude of the problem, or even that we have a problem," said Jim Halsell, the shuttle program's manager of launch integration. "But it was prudent to stand down for a day."

It will be more than a day, however.

A valve problem found later in the shuttle's main propulsion system delayed liftoff until at least Monday.

The valve, which controls the flow of fuel, appeared to be sluggish during routine operations. Workers will have to enter Discovery's engine compartment to check the valve; to replace it, if necessary, will take three days.

NASA will launch the shuttle only when it is comfortable with a review of the valve and the bolt problems.

The bolt is one of three that attach the orbiter to the big, orange exterior fuel tank during liftoff. The tank carries the super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that power the orbiter's three main engines.

The bolts secure the orbiter to the tank during tremendous liftoff pressure, so they are large: 14 inches long and 21/2 inches in diameter, said shuttle manager Bill Gurstenmaier. They extend from the tank into fixtures on the shuttle.

When the tank is empty about eight minutes into flight, explosive charges blow apart the nuts that hold the bolts in the orbiter, and the tank begins to fall away. As tank and orbiter separate, the bolts retract into the tank.

Monitoring cameras aboard the Atlantis mission last month, however, showed one bolt not fully retracted. About 21/4 inches stuck out into space. The problem was noticed during a routine review, Gurstenmaier said, and was just recently brought to the attention of the Kennedy Space Center's launch team.

The worry is that the protruding bolt might strike a part of the shuttle, and start the tank pitching dangerously as it fell away, explained Halsell, potentially causing serious damage to the orbiter.

"We will review the issue carefully," he said. "Our minds are open to all the possibilities, but we still have hope we can fly."

Discovery's launch will be the 100th in the shuttle program, and will begin a busy year of international space station construction.

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