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Discovery to launch despite concerns
Los Angeles Times
NASA decided Saturday to schedule the launch of the shuttle Discovery for July 1, despite the concerns of some top safety officials that the space agency has not solved the problem with flaky insulating foam, which brought down the shuttle Columbia in 2003.
Two members of the shuttle-management team, chief engineer Christopher Scolese and head safety officer Bryan O'Conner, recommended the launch be delayed because of worries that foam on 37 brackets attached to the shuttle's giant external tank could fall off and pose a hazard to the craft.
But at the end of the two-day Flight Readiness Review, they were outvoted by the rest of the management team. The team thought that even if foam comes off, it would not endanger the seven-person crew.
After going on record recommending a delay, the dissenting officials said they did not oppose launching July 1.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials agreed that recommending against a launch but not opposing it sounded contradictory. Shuttle-program manager Wayne Hale said this was proof that NASA has changed in the wake of the Columbia accident.
After the loss of Columbia, it came out that some officials had been worried about the 1.7-pound piece of foam that could be seen hitting the left wing during launch. Their concerns were brushed aside.
Now, said Hale, every voice is heard, even if it sends a somewhat confusing message to the public.
About 35 pounds of insulating foam have been removed from the fuel tank after a 1-pound piece of foam came off during the launch of Discovery last year.
Concern remains about the potential loss of foam from a part of the tank known as the ice-frost ramps. Some engineers want those pieces of foam removed before the upcoming launch. NASA decided to leave them until they see how the shuttle performs during this mission.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said no large pieces of foam have ever come off the ice frost ramps during 114 shuttle missions.
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