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NASA Setback: Shuttle Fleet Grounded Indefinitely

Two and a half years and $1 billion later NASA still has problems with foam insulation breaking loose from shuttle fuel tanks, a problem which was fatal to the space shuttle Columbia.

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) - The shuttle Discovery, like Columbia, shed a large chunk of foam debris during liftoff that could have threatened the return of the seven astronauts, NASA said Wednesday.

While there are no signs the piece of insulation damaged the spacecraft, NASA is grounding future shuttle flights until the hazard can be fixed.

"Call it luck or whatever, it didn't harm the orbiter," said shuttle program manager Bill Parsons. If the foam had broken away earlier in flight, when the atmosphere is thicker increasing the likelihood of impact, it could have caused catastrophic damage to Discovery.

"We think that would have been really bad, so it's not acceptable," said Parsons' deputy, Wayne Hale. But he said early signs are Discovery is safe for its return home.

I think "that would be really bad" is the understatement of the year. 'That would be the end of NASA as we know it' would be a better analogy. Much as you wouldn't keep pouring cash into a clunker automobile, it's time to admit that the shuttle fleet is end-of-life and start work on a new space vehicle design.


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Comments (20)

That sucks.You'd t... (Below threshold)

That sucks.

You'd think that would be the ONE thing that they'd gotten perfect by now.

Time to clean house. Even ... (Below threshold)

Time to clean house. Even if it means setting things back a while.

This is the first time that... (Below threshold)

This is the first time that significant assets have been devoted to observing the dynamics of the launch and its results. It probably should have been done two decades ago.

The foam is relatively new. I believe that it was reformulated in the early 90's due to the use of "bad" chemicals in the older version. "Bad" meaning greenhouse gases or fluorocarbons or some darn thing. The old foam stuck better because it applied evenly and without bubbles. The new foam has some application difficulties.

I agree that we need a set of new vehicles. But we also need to use the shuttle as intended, as a freight hauler. I suspect that we could remodel the fleet at a much lower cost, bring it up to 2005 materials standards, and make them safer.

But, no vehicle will even be safe. It's a darn dangerous thing we send these men and women to do, and sometimes bad things happen to good people.

I'm guessing that after the... (Below threshold)

I'm guessing that after the previous foam-induced shuttle crash, NASA went through some version of the guard skit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

"I want you to make absolutely sure no foam comes off the shuttle the next time it launches."

"Right. Make sure foam comes off the shuttle. Check."

I tell you what, I'd like t... (Below threshold)

I tell you what, I'd like to see "space" taken away from NASA and given to one of the branches of the military. I bet we'd have orbiting power stations and a moonbase in a decade.

I sent an email to those NA... (Below threshold)

I sent an email to those NASA idiots after the Columbia diaster and told them to cover the fuel tank with a giant "fishnet" stocking. This would contain all but the smallest foam pieces from falling off. Simple, effective but "not invented here".

Lightwave,Anything... (Below threshold)


Anything that is remotely critical about "space" is already under military control.

Does anyone remember the fa... (Below threshold)

Does anyone remember the fact that NASA/military DID have a replacement for the Shuttle in the works, until the project was cancelled in 2001?

Yes, there was one.

It was shitcanned due to being behind schedule and over budget.


Project: X-33/Venture Star
Prime Contractor: Lockheed-Martin

Reason behind cancellation: project was behind schedule because a critical component, composite fuel tanks, kept bursting during pressure tests. Substitution with aluminum tanks was found to be unacceptable due to weight concerns.

Suspected true reason behind the cancellation: project was being asked to deliver several technological advances on unrealistic timelines and funding levels.

I recall a project management view of the STS project: existing STS design was based on a series of compromises driven by funding levels (e.g., solid/liquid rocket configuration; fuel tank design/configuration). In 1972, when NASA estimators were developing the bid for the STS project pitch to Congress, the "blue sky" estimate was 6 years at $5.0B (launch date April 1978). HOWEVER, estimators looked at design and integration "unknowns" and suggested that a much more accurate estimate would add three years and $1.15B to the price tag (revised launch date April 1981). NASA tried to pitch the revised schedule/cost to Congress, but the politicians wouldn't hear of it: the "blue sky" time/cost had become cast in stone. The rest, as they say, is history: $6.15B and launch in April 1981.

While NASA is certainly not lily-white in its project management skills lately, blame for X-33 project cancellation is ultimately political. Perhaps one could argue that NASA's PR campaign for STS set the precedent for unrealistic space planning (anyone remember STS claims of $1,000/lb payload costs and two-week flight turnarounds?).

The shame of it was that the Venture Star project was the single most serious attempt to replace technology that is over 30 years old (not withstanding mid-life upgrades such as glass cockpit and O-ring redesign). Many have commented that due to NASA's conflicting priorities and lack of funding, STS was its own worst enemy: the four annual flights scheduled prior to Columbia caused STS to suck dry the vast majority of NASA's annual budget. Sleight-of-hand accounting practices that attempted to minimize STS total flight costs only exacerbated the problem.

Any project manager will tell you that a project's chance of success is heavily dependent on funding levels, funding profile, schedule, and manning levels (Eearned Value Management Systems, or EVMS). An outsider's view suggests that GWB's Mars talk, based on funding proposals seen in the press to-date, are just talk, as long as NASA's funding doesn't change, and it is forced to continue to rely on STS.

Is this really rocket scien... (Below threshold)

Is this really rocket science? That's what happens when you get rid of all the scientists and engineers running things, like during Appolo, and replace them with the bureaucrats. This is insanity.

Insulation falling off cyro... (Below threshold)
Brett Buck:

Insulation falling off cyrogenic fuel tanks is not exactly a new problem. The current spray-on insulation is an outgrowth of the method used on Saturn V second stage. Other external insulation schemes proved far more troublesome.

The right answer, from day 1, was probably to put the insulation on the *inside* of the tank (which was done on the Saturn V 4rd stage (S-IV and S-IVb). On the surface it seems crazy that you could submerge the insulation directly in the -400 degree fuel, but it's workable, and also fairly obvious that falling off would at most clog the fuel lines and cause an abort. Certainly isn't going to hit the wing. That would necessitate a completely new tank design, of course.

One of the leading candiates for the insulation at the time (mid-60's) was *balsa wood*.


Space travel/exploration is... (Below threshold)

Space travel/exploration is too important to be left to the polit-bureaucrats at the fedgov/NASA. It's time to let the free market work.

Knowing the propagandistic ... (Below threshold)
bryan dorrough:

Knowing the propagandistic nature of NASA regarding its public image ,there must be dread indeed in mission control. You get where I'm going.

The shuttle is a very expen... (Below threshold)

The shuttle is a very expensive, very complex system that has serious limitations (shallow orbits), cannot keep to a schedule, and is too costly in human lives. It's time to scrap it.

Manned spaceflight: no
Robots in a space: yes

Large, centralized shuttle fleet: no
Smaller, decentralized set of rockets: yes

NASA has a new scheme now w... (Below threshold)

NASA has a new scheme now where, if the astronauts can't get home, they can wait on the space station for more than 30 days while a rescue shuttle is prepared.

Guess they won't worry about loose insulation on the rescue mission, right?

Headline on yesterday's CNN... (Below threshold)

Headline on yesterday's CNN: Can the Shuttle save the Hubble?

Ironically, the question now is whether the Shuttle itself can be saved.

NASA still has problems ... (Below threshold)

NASA still has problems with foam insulation breaking loose from shuttle fuel tanks, a problem which was fatal to the space shuttle Columbia.

<John McLaughlin>WRONG</John McLaughlin>

Columbia did not suddenly explode on take off because some foam hit it. Rather, it made orbit, completed its mission, and began its descent while NASA managers blew off the warnings that a foam strike might have breeched the heat shielding. Loose foam was not at fault; criminal negligence was. I am so pissed that no one responsible in NASA has been fired, much less brought up on charges of criminal negligence.

I remember when the shuttle... (Below threshold)
Sabba Hillel:

I remember when the shuttle was first being build, many people pointed at flaws in the design. The main problem was that the design was a compromise and that better designs were ignored because the people proposing them were also published in science fiction magazines.

The paradigm for the shuttle is that each mission is a one shot experiment. Had they designed in the way aircraft were developed, we would have been sending regular missions on a normal schedule 20 years ago.

Kevin,>it's time t... (Below threshold)
Skip P:


>it's time to admit that the shuttle fleet is end-of-life and start work on a new space vehicle design.

Already under way.. I work for Northrop Grumman and as recently as 2 weeks ago, the company was awarded a contract to review the engineering systems of NASA's new CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle).


some additional information can be found at:



Actually, it's time to <a h... (Below threshold)

Actually, it's time to admit that NASA is end-of-life and start work on a new free-market space exploration paradigm.

"Hugh Hewitt has more on th... (Below threshold)

"Hugh Hewitt has more on the numbers behind the Air America/Gloria Wise Club loans."

Are you serious? I suggest people follow the links to Dimwitt's site. He has some tax forms which show nothing. Do you take your readers for idiots?






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