Reader Feedback on STS-121

Editor's note: Do you have thoughts about the STS-121 mission - foam, safety, Flight Readiness Review decisions, etc.? If so, send them to Your comments thus far:

What ever happened to that tin-whisker issue on the orbiter? Talk about scarry...

An associate of the amateur space community identified that a hydraulic system glitch (perhaps two) during STS-107's entry most likely occurred independently of the wing damage, and identified from old FRR documents several other flights which had similar glitches during both ascent and entry. The result is a loss of redundancy in aerosurface actuators (ASA) and remote powervalve controllers (RPC). If two such glitches happened at the same time, control of an aerosurface (and therefore the Orbiter) would be lost.

Todd Halverson of Florida Today identified a glitch from the RCS system, where an RCS thruster can fire when its not commanded to, similar to the famous RCS failure of Gemini 8. The difference with Shuttle is that a thruster firing could overload the ODS, bust the docking rings off, and vent the Orbiter/ISS assembly habitable volume, killing both ISS and Shuttle crews.

Finally, there is a potential debris hazard from a North Korean missile test.

My personal perspective and strong feelings are simple. First, the current STS is all we as a nation have to further our goals in space. It is far too easy to be critical of NASA, its engineers, and sub contractors, however, we are a nation that did lead the space race until we left the moon. Back then we were driven to succeed and develop new technologies, many of which have many useful spin offs, but look at us today...after billions of dollars, we are stuck using 1970's style technologies with some upgrades, and not one agency, Civilian or Federal that has designed, tested, and developed something better.

Do I think NASA is doing a good job with the Space Shuttle? I have to say YES due to the extensive lengths that they are going to ensure safety and reliability, in order to complete the ISS. Is there room for improvement? Resoundingly YES, but the astronauts and the entire NASA team has done and is doing outstanding...with what they have available to work with. As a nation, we can do better and we should do better. Enough with the politics. Lets find solutions and get them on the drawing boards and make them reality.

Secondly, there are tremendous lessons to learn from the last 20+ years the STS has been operating. 10 years ago, someone should have been working on its reliable replacement, to ensure continuity of the space program and support of the ISS and the missions to the moon and hopefully someday mars. The expertise and technology are within our grasp. My question to those who have access to it is simple...where have you been in developing new and more reliable means to gain access to space?

It is time to raise our standards and start stretching for our potential once again. President Kennedy lit the fire once...we can surely do it again.

My thought on this subject is - "You fly with the Shuttle you have, not the Shuttle you want." I applaud Mike Griffin's decision to launch STS-121 with the Ice/Frost Ramps "as is."

A previous poster is absolutely correct: "[T]he FRR fracas is evidence not of a healthy debate, but of a seriously dysfunctional decision-making process at NASA HQ. ...The decision process should be vested in an organization and individual who is competent to make that decision. The Administrator is not the appropriate decision authority. ... The final launch decision should rest with a program manager -- someone intimately familiar with technical aspects of the program as a matter of his professional responsibility."

NASA is still deeply flawed. Dr. Griffin is probably the best administrator the agency has had in the last 20 years, in terms of his understanding of the technical issues and having the strength to make difficult decisions. Nevertheless, he has surrounded himself with his favorite people and will brook no criticism. The protests of Scolese and O'Conner were merely gestures. The Director of Engineering at JSC resigned his job over the issue (as tied to the selection of senior management officials). Now, that's showing some backbone! Griffin needs check his own hubris at the door of the FRR.

Don't use my name. I still work there.

Congratulations to Mike Griffin on making the decision to launch the Shuttle. It required _chutzpah_ ("guts") to make that decision and even more _chutzpah_ to take public responsibility for it.

Yes, it seems arrogant of him to overrule the concerns that were aired at the Flight Readiness Review. But I don't think it's a bad kind of arrogance. Mike Griffin can evaluate these concerns (he is, after all, a top-notch engineer) and he has the authority to overrule them. If NASA is to ever to get beyond Earth orbit again it will take a lot more such _chutzpadik_ decisions... and the fierce technical competence necessary to back them up.

Now, if he could only find some equally competent and gutsy people to run the PAO...

I'm glad we're flying again. It's about time. Way to go Shuttle Team!!

The people bashing the Shuttle in this thread don't have a clue what they're talking about. It is a technological marvel that will not be duplicated in our lifetimes. It is the most reliable launch vehicle ever flown, without exception (one failure in 115 launches). It is also the most reliable re-entry vehicle ever flown (one failure in 113 missions). It is the only launch vehicle (and re-entry vehicle as well) with a demonstrated reliability of 0.99 or greater, manned or unmanned.

The reason it is so expensive has less to do with the hardware and more to do with the number of NASA employees, contractors, and vendors it employs. Half of the entire Agency charges to Shuttle charge codes. As for its usefulness, it was under-utilized for the one thing it could do that no other space vehicle can do, or will be able to do in the next 50 years. And that is return a massive amount of cargo from space back to the surface of the earth. For all we plan to do with the ISS and the Constellation programs, we will never again be able to bring back more than a couple of hundred pounds of rocks or experiment samples. The Shuttle was truly decades ahead of its time. If this nation had the commitment it takes to conquer space, we would have upgraded the Shuttle over the years and evolved it from the prototype technology demonstrator that it is into the reliable and safe operational vehicle that we all expect it to be. Had we done that, we could be launching 2 million pounds into orbit every year and would have returned to the moon by now. Like Heinlein said, "once you get to Earth orbit, you're half way to anywhere in the solar system."

Having read a few of the earlier posts, I realize my comments here are not unique. However...I have to say I find the foam issue strange in many ways. I'm amazed that NASA flew the shuttle for over 20 years, with that stuff flying off nearly every flight - debris size big and small (they never knew)-, and never did the experimental work to access the effect (serious, as it turns out) of such activity. And now, after finding out the hard way, they are just over the top, in terms of money, time, and options, in their actions to deal with the foam issue. As an earlier poster said, as they concentrate on the foam issue, are they taking their eyes off of the other hundred million potential hazards that could destroy a shuttle? Makes me think of the line, 'closing the barn door after the horses have escaped'.

NASA has been challenged the last several years in three areas.

First is the technical one. They have identified areas of risk and dealt with them. With the foam one they have tackled it on a number of levels from preventing foam loss, minimizing size of loss if it does occur, examining the vehicle to determine if there has been a strike, developing repairs if there is damage, developing plans in case repairs are not effective. Each level of defense lowers the total risk to the crew and the mission. It seems they have finally taken to heart the shuttle has unanswered day one flaws.

Second is the management process one. I remember cringing when as the fifth flight left the pad the spokesman said this was the first operational mission. This thinking that the shuttle was no longer an experimental vehicle ultimately led to the "prove to us it is not safe to fly" versus the "prove to us that is safe to fly" mentality. Even after the Challenger loss the processes that led to discouraging dissent did not change. Cultural change takes a long time. With the downtime they have had, NASA seems to have made great strides in this area.

Third is the public relations one. Good PR is needed to get the American people behind you and keep funding flowing. It doesn't affect safety or flight operations except that without it there will be fewer missions in the future. NASA's open policy has withered in recent years. Scientists and engineers have been muzzled and information has been reduced to press releases carefully wordsmithed by bureaucrats. These people don't understand technology and miss opportunities and make statements that causes knowledgeable readers to roll their eyes. What is the story with not releasing the FFR transcript for this mission? As the PR department has said nothing, we are free to imagine all sorts of things, none of them good to NASA's image. I have no doubt keeping the FFR private is a good idea. There is a new policy of encouraging engineers to air all concerns, no matter how trivial. Releasing the FFR might cause a flood of press speculation without having the benefit of the full facts driving these engineers' concerns. Also, engineers may feel uncomfortable speaking in public. They are paid to be engineers, not politicians. Confidential forums are always more comfortable for people to speak up than private ones. A simple explanation of this would go a long way with the public.

In the last mission small foam bits fell off after the air became too thin to create a risk. An engineer would have pointed this out but the PR department didn't ask for their opinion. At the time the media had a field day pronouncing how the vehicle dodged a bullet. Bad PR. A few months ago some young kid ran around editing statements by engineers to fit his creationist view. Bad PR. On this mission nobody properly explained why a bit of foam falling onto the pad was not a big risk. The public was left to believe NASA was being reckless. Yet when the launch was scrubbed at great expense due to a few clouds the media wasn't told this was due to an abundance of caution. Which is it, is NASA cautious or reckless? Bad PR. Never A Straight Answer is alive and well.

In my opinion, NASA has been spending far too much time and money makeing the shuttle safer. Cost per expected life saved is far too high. The usual value for a human life in this sort of policy computation is in the low millions of dollars. They've spent many billions of dollars over the long, drawn out return to flight process after Columbia (much of that to keep the standing army standing). This investment will never be recouped in the value of improved safety.

If what the shuttle is doing isn't important enough to justify the pre-RTF level of risk to the astronauts (1 loss of crew per 57 launches) then it isn't important enough to justify launching it at all, since the cost of the launch greatly exceeds the expected cost of lost lives.

Mission outcomes notwithstanding, the FRR fracas is evidence not of a healthy debate, but of a seriously dysfunctional decision-making process at NASA HQ.

The NASA Administrator overruled decisions by the chiefs of safety and of engineering. The question of the Administrator's particular technical competence, whatever that might be, is not relevant here; it is a question of appropriate decision authority and locus of responsibility within a bureaucracy. The decision to launch should be made by persons who have both the technical expertise, by training and by career experience, together with the responsibility and authority to make those decisions. The Administrator position is, by definition, a political appointee.

A review of NASA's own public information on the position of "chief" of safety identifies only an advisory role. The "chief" of engineering has "responsibility" to ensure technical readiness for flight. What do the terms "chief" and "responsible" mean if not that they are in the senior decision-making authority?

The very public conflict between their respective "no go" votes, and the decision taken by the Administrator to launch anyway, placed those persons in the untenable position of defying a boss who has demonstrated he can be rid of others who disagree with him. One might argue that they had the option to resign. This argument further underscores my point -- that the routine launch decision is now taken in a dysfunctional manner.

The decision process should be vested in an organization and individual who is competent to make that decision. The Administrator is not the appropriate decision authority.

In a decision-making vacuum, caused by NASA's historical aversion to individual responsibility, Michael Griffin usurped the decision authority. It is now inappropriately vested in a position that is primarily a political appointment, rather than in a position defined by knowledge and technical expertise. It is a flawed decision model.

NASA's aversion to individual responsibility is enshrined in the nonsensical tenet to "work without attribution," currently postered on a wall in a conference room in Building 30 at JSC. That tenet, left over from Apollo 13 days, was reinforced by Challenger, and bolted to the bedrock by Columbia.

My assessment has nothing to do with the substance of the decision to launch. I sincerely hope Mr. Griffin is right. I have acquaintances on this mission, and friends on the next.

Michael Griffin was on both CNN and Fox News Sunday, explaining his decision to launch STS-121. Would anyone have been comfortable with the previous Administrator, Sean O'Keefe (BA, MPA), a bean-counter by training, making this decision. Of course not. Nor would he. I am aghast that Mr. Griffin cannot see the inherent flaw in this process.

Perhaps the "chiefs" of safety and engineering should have, at the least, a veto on the launch decision. The simple expedient of a veto would substantially increase the salience of their respective disciplines in the decision process, from some ill-defined, and now almost vacuous "advisory" role, to one of consequence. The final launch decision should rest with a program manager -- someone intimately familiar with technical aspects of the program as a matter of his professional responsibility. The decision to launch should not rest with someone who has "steeped" himself in the issues, whilst also working on next year's budget, and workforce "right sizing" and priorities in science budgets, and public education, and liaison with Congress, and all that; and certainly not after his "chief" of safety AND "chief" of engineering both vote "no go."

While demonstrably NASA should have taken the danger of falling foam more seriously before the loss of Columbia, especially after several incidences of this occurring on previous flights, it should still be realised that relative to risks of the other systems in the vehicle (high pressure lines, complicated engines etc) the comparative risk of a foam induced failure is still low. In other words, as NASA concentrates so hard on the potential of foam damage to the thermal protection system during future flights, there is a danger that they may 'take their eye off the ball' from other risky parts of the system.

It is worrying that there does seem to be a culture of only letting 'yes men' into certain positions within NASA, and apparently, a culture of suppressing information. This can be both dangerous and stupid. Nevertheless, while commentators have expressed a concern that NASA is ignoring its safety engineers as it has done in the past, it should be realised that the failures of both Challenger and Columbia also had the same root cause: a basic design flaw originally caused by the combination of the technological limitations of the time and the Nixon administration's cost cuts in the early 1970s. These, in turn, led to a compromising of the design of the Space Shuttle. It is a lesson that still should be learned as the administration endeavours to develop a follow-on vehicle to the space shuttle: that the cheapest solution in the short term can be very much more expensive in the long run, both in terms of money and in terms of lives. If a vehicle is badly designed, then some accidents will inevitably happen, however good the safety culture.

Even knowing this - the Shuttle's 'rason d'tre' is to fly. There is no current alternative to it. The only way to achieve zero risk is to never fly it again but that would probably spell the end of the International Space Station. It should be noted that the best manned-rated rockets, even those that do not have falling foam to worry about, still suffer failure rates of 1% or more. And the astronauts and cosmonauts that ride these vehicles know this. The risk goes with the territory.

As the former Level I QA Manager for the first 18 Space shuttle flights I find that the decisions made were quite appropriate. Engineering and Safety (QA) voted no go based on their concern for the ET foam problem which was the right call by each. They were obligated to give their best advice to the decision team. Other NASA leaders/managers, members of the decision team, and the Administrator adequately and appropriately evaluated the risks and elected to take the risk. The technology and the complexity of the shuttle are such that all flights are a risk and smart managers can evaluate, using engineering/scientific knowledge, risks and make an effective decision. NASA is a risky business and those in decision making positions must give their best advice and the ultimate decisions must be made based on risk evaluations. NASA leadership made the right decision.

Dear Dr. Griffin:

Emotions and science are a good combination. Trust me. Ask Keith for my address, or look me up, and I'll tell you all about it.

I thought that the preparations before the launch, especially listening to the "Pad Rats" suggestion as how to get up close and personal with the cracked foam, was a milestone. Listen to the people who get their hands dirty, and you'll find a devotion to purpose not easily matched. All hail the "Pad Rats"! Those people should be rewarded with more than simply being able to come to work the next day, I believe. No hopper passes, either!

Let's face it, the STS was designed by those of the Ford Pinto and AMC Gremlin era. They did the best they could with the science of the day, and the post-Apollo monetary mindset. Sure, it would be nice to have designed the ET along the lines of a Thermos bottle, but how many more SRBs would you need to offset the weight?

Today, the manned space program is paying the penalty for 25 years of neglect. The STS was not designed to be used this far into the future. Our parents, who designed it, believed that perhaps their children would be interested enough to design something better.

We didn't.

Now that the orbiters are equipped with instrumentation and sensors whose like were not even envisioned when Columbia flew her maiden voyage, everyone is suddenly a "foam watcher". The CAIB found that large amounts of foam have always been shed, and that NASA was complacent with this. No more. The data garnered from STS-114 helped to make STS-121 a safer flight. Likewise, data from STS-121 will make STS-118 safer, and so on.

"Risk"? Risk is a fact of life, accept it or not. The number of people who have died on rides at Disney World in the past few years is fast approaching the numbers of those who died aboard STS-51L, yet millions still go to Disney. If you ride a motorcycle, as I do, you understand the concept of "risk vs. reward". If you work in the manned spaceflight business, and can't stand the risk, either work your ears off to reduce it or find another occupation. Support those who are willing to trust in your work with your reputation, your career, and your life if you feel strongly enough. Those people in the blue flightsuits trust you.

So do many of us "out here".

I have never had to explain, or defend, our manned space program to anyone who rides a motorcycle. We're just the tip of the iceberg.

Dave Hromanik, West Mifflin, PA.

I have to disagree with the comment comparing STS to an eagle instead of an albatross. STS has succeeded in practically none of its promise: it is THE most dangerous and by far the most expensive way to get mass into space. Except for zero-g bio-med research, STS has performed almost zero science that could not be done by orbital auto/remote-lab, 'vomit-comet' or simple satellite. It reaches no further than low earth orbit, and thus 'explores' nothing at all, and has never achieved a launch rate any better than ordinary rockets. If anything, its main value has been to show how NOT to go into space, if you want to go to the Moon or planets. Fire and thunder look great, and feel good, but in real return STS has been simply a money pit (which serves and even money black-hole, in orbit).

It is ironic that the manned program is currently referred to as 'exploration' when it is the much more cost effective unmanned program that does all the real exploring. In the end STS IS, and will continue to be an albatross, hanging around the neck of NASA.

After two accidents, watching a shuttle launch is like watching a high-wire act with no safety net. We're spending half our emotional energy worrying whether the vehicle will simply survive liftoff, staging, etc. It will be so much better when the CLV (with its "safety net" and far fewer failure modes) comes on line. Then we can put all of our emotional energy into cheering on the crew, vehicle and mission.

Watching a shuttle launch is still thrilling, even after 20 years and it will be remembered as an Eagle, not as an Albatross. Besides advances in science and technology, the most important lesson that has come from the Shuttle program is that The Shuttle has put us on the right path to go forward.

Michael Griffin has taken me from the cynicism I had been harboring to believing again. I was impressed when they scrubbed the first attempt. The odds of a problem where low, but they did the right thing and later when the foam on the External Tank developed cracks and some pieces fell off, they decided that it did not present a danger and I believed them ... and it was a launch worth waiting for.

Mr. Cowing, I saw you on the local news the other night (after you posted the airing announcement). Good interview. I've only been keeping up with NASA Watch for a bit less than a year now, but I enjoy it and learn a lot. The space shuttle inspired me to study spaceflight in college and then enter the spacecraft industry. I genuinely appreciate the complexity of the shuttle system and am excited everytime a launch occurs. I realize and accept the idea that manned spaceflight is inherently dangerous. The same is true for any type of real exploration throughout history. Many lives have been lost, many dollars have been spent, and many careers have been either glorified or destroyed in the process of exploration. I think many folks have unrealistic expectations of safety for the space shuttle system. Some folks expect space exploration to be so watered-down that it would be become similar to a senior citizen bus tour of Chicago. The time for that kind of general "everyman" space visit will be possible in coming years, probably from the private sector. That type of experience is not the business or interest of NASA. I encourage space enthusiasts to support the shuttle system and the future CEV system, and acknowledge the risk that goes along with space exploration. Exploration programs cannot be automatically stalled every time a particular problem gets a high level of public notice. As far as I can tell, the foam issues on the shuttle are as old as the vehicle itself. It was only a higher degree of public awareness and unwarranted frenzy that caused a halt in operations. Spot-fixing and redesigning every little foam detatchment location from now on will never allow the shuttle system to finish its work by 2010. I look forward to the increased launch frequency the shuttle have before them- 4 years to complete 15 or so more missions. Support your local space program.

With regard to the comment "NASA has really bungled this foam issue" On the 114 flight last July the large piece of foam (1lb) that left the tank and passed dangerously close to the wing leading edge was approximately 1 minute and 21 seconds into flight which is well within the critical time of causing critical damage to the wing leading edge.

Long time reader first time writer,

I have been a huge fan of space exploration for as long as I can remember. I have worked at the Cape and in the Industry and will get back their soon.

I was nervous from lift off till MECO. No longer to people breath easy at SRB sep. The basic shuttle design and configuration is proving to be only manageable at extreme cost. It is truly an amazing accomplishment, on for the record books but its purpose and reason for existence are questionable.

I wish the Shuttle program all the best in flying out its full manifest with 100% success before the retirement date. But I don't think the life of the program should be extended beyond the planned date. If you miss a flight so be it. Also, for planning and scheduling purposes you can't have a floating end date, otherwise it will be well after 2010 before it is retired.

The money for STS is needed for the new vehicles and missions and they won't seriously get rolling until shuttle money is freed up. The ISS can largely be serviced by Protons, Soyuz and ATVs as well as CEV's once they launch.

For the pride of the program, the ISS and the American public I wish the shuttle program a glorious and successful final chapter but the finish line needs to stay defined.

Hats off to NASA on the successful launch of Discovery! I suspect all of the media vultures will have to find something else to feed on for a while. As for the foam shedding issue, why doesn't NASA change their rules for tanking? From what I understand, and I'm no rocket scientist, most of the foam issues are a result of thermal cycling when the ET is filled and emptied. Why not tank only when you have at least a 70-80% chance of favorable weather at launch time? Didn't last Friday's forecast indicate only a 25-30% chance of acceptable weather for Sat & Sunday's attempts, while the Monday/Tuesday (48/72 hour) forecasts were much higher?

I read the comments posted, and most say pretty much the same thing. This audience has, generally speaking, the background and experience to appreciate the technical facts of the case, and the political pressures everyone is under.

Like most comments, I think NASA has really fudged this. I don't really fault the Administrator's decision, that's his decision to make and his shoulders (neck?) to carry the consequences. But put this decision against the rhetoric before the decision, something like "we'll never risk another astronaut" and the concerns arise. I think we in the business accept that this is a risky exercise, and that the most dangerous risks are those you don't understand, evaluate, and accept. I think foam shedding (now) isn't in this category.

If the guys at the pointy end of the exercise, the mission commander, have the final say then they are in the loop and reasonably best placed to evaluate the risk. If the Administrator flew in the Shuttle, I'd let him have this privilege too, but then generals heading their armies from the front is something of a bygone age.

I personally found your post of the FRR meeting very illuminating. I wish the dissenters had taken a firm position, rather than an "each way bet". Either the shuttle is good to go or it isn't, either your opinion is "go" or "no go".

Hopefully everyone is anticipating a successful return to flight for the Shuttle, and a successful return of 121; and hopefully the Administrator isn't going "nar, nar; told you it was ok"

Hi, Keith. I'm just an average American with a technical background in large-scale computing systems. I've been an avid reader of "NASA watch" for several years now and a fan of the US space program ever since I was old enough to remember. What bothers me the most about the space agency I'd call "shuttle retirement fever".

I have this real fear that the shuttle is going to be retired at 2010 before the ISS is finished. I think the ISS could be is one of the greatest international scientific resources ever, but the continued downsizing, i.e. loss of the CAM, habitat module, life sciences funding, etc, is destroying it's effectiveness. It bothers me that the shuttle design, based on comments I've heard over the years, may have been flawed, but we've been spending millions upon millions to try to make it safer, and all that investment would have been made to a system only to abandon it. That for another series of vehicles that certainly doesn't inspire me, and perhaps like a giant step backward, "Apollo on steroids", I think somebody called it. I hate to say this, but it just sounds like the shuttle program, despite the large number of successful flights, has the word " government boondoggle" as an epitaph.

Granted the system is 30 years old, but I would point out the avionics and wiring have been updated, and there have been many other upgrades. NASA should have been looking all along and building new cost-effective and reusable vehicles, but less face it, how many innovative ideas, like the Aero-spike engine, were cast aside because the administrator's didn't know how to sell the ideas to Congress, or complain about earmarks sapping basic program funding. As far as the loss of two crews, it seems to me that happened because of complacency, NASA managers simply forgot what they were trying to do, put people on a developing transportation system safely into space.

Obviously the space agency is moving ahead with their plans, and doing a clumsy job of PR with selling the idea to the American people. I for one don't feel a strong interest anymore and almost feel sorry for the flight crews making the transit to Mars when it comes. Where one dreams of a spacecraft along the lines of Discovery-1 from "2001, A Space Odyssey", in reality, we will probably have a system more along the lines of the first submarine, "The Turtle". Thanks for your time, Keith.

Keith, As a longtime reader of Nasawatch, I am a bit dismayed that on the STS-121 issue you have slid a bit on to the worrywart side of things. I look at spaceflight as something worth giving life and limb for. True, with the Columbia disaster we have begun to see flaws in the design of the Shuttle we have not recognised before. Have fragile heatshield + have stuff fall onto fragile heatshield during launch = not a good idea. But the Shuttle is all we have right now. (Or is it ? Can you say Aurora ?) In any case, once the risks are understood, we make a decision whether or not to accept those risks. I think it's ok to accept a high level of risk with spaceflight. As long as we inspect the heat shield after launch, I am comfortable with this high level of risk, because we will not knowingly send the astronauts to their deaths. If there is a problem, the crew can wait on the ISS for rescue. In an extreme scenario, a series of Soyuz vehicles can bring them back two at a time.

The bottom line is that with spaceflight we are doing something unnatural, something incredibly gutsy and risky, so that one day we will be able to populate the stars. Many more astronauts will die before that happens, but that future is worth it. And hopefully I will be in a position to put my ass on the line one day.

I don't have technical insight to warrant criticism of the FRR decision, but I do agree with a previous writer that "NASA has really bungled this foam issue" in a PR sense. The public cannot reasonably be given a vote at the FRR, but we can and should be taught what goes into the decision. Evidently the "go" decision was based heavily on two bets: (1) if foam breaks off, it probably won't be during the most dangerous period, where foam can be thrown hard at the tiles; and (2) the probability of critical damage on each shuttle flight is low enough that the possibility of having two damaged shuttles stranded at station is in some sense negligible.

If the foam/ice problems on the last two flights were in an aerodynamically benign launch phase, NASA has not been effective in saying that, or why we can expect the same thing again. It would affect our judgment of probabilities in the second question, which is probably the one key question. I think Americans can understand that gamble, and how much it relies on NASA's accurate judgment of the single-flight risk.

Lastly, the decision to withhold the raw FRR materials from publication , though perhaps defensible, just fuels the mystery. To combat this, NASA should have provided a lengthy written summary of the FRR decision, probably including invited expert non-advocate outsider commentary. This would help confirm that our money and astronauts are facing appropriate risks, and defuse the notion that something spooky is going on.

Congratulations to NASA for its decision to launch STS-121. Too many people are basing their bashing of NASA and its management team on mainstream media reports about what is going on with the program. If you watched any of NASA's media briefings during the past week, it's easy to see that the vast majority of journalists covering this program have no real clue. Their questions would not have passed muster in a Journalism 101 class. Therefore, the mainstream media reports you read are, at best, thin on facts, devoid of real details, and heavy on gut-wrenching, heart-tugging sensationalism. NASA has to take some level of risk or Americans will never travel in space. In today's risk-averse environment, there is absolutely no way we would have ever launched an Apollo mission to the moon. I say good for NASA, good for Mike Griffin, and good for America.

While the launch is impressive, the space shuttle is an antique at this point. And an antique prototype at that. The poor old girls should be retired to the Smithsonian, next to the Wright flyer. The remaining shuttle flights are really not intended to accomplish much. Completing the multiply degraded ISS is little more than a demonstration of national ability now that nearly all science missions have been reduced to insignificance. In some sense yesterday's launch of Discovery resembles the scene in "The Incredibles" where dad is stuffing himself into his old spandex just to prove that he still has it. Launching the shuttle at this point in its lifespan is nothing but a dancing bear act, where the thrill is not in the skill of the choreography, but a sense of relief that the beast neither fell, nor went rampaging through the crowd.

NASA has really bungled this foam issue. On the previous flight a piece of foam came off and according to the press " just missed the Shuttle" inferring another near catastrophe. The foam came off after the SRBs had departed at a low enough dynamic pressure that no more than a slight scuff would have occurred had the piece impacted the vehicle. Yet nobody at NASA brought attention to this fact and just let the press have their near disaster heyday. Now that several pieces of foam have come off on this flight at similar conditions they finally addressed the issue as not dangerous to the shuttle. NASA appears to just be running scared and without well thought out PR.

The NASA manangement that decided not to have the fuel tank redesigned without foam should be held accountable for the decision. In the private sector inept managers are let go. Given the seriousness of the problem and the fact that the money and effort to improve the foam would have been enough to pay for a different design without foam, the manager who made that decision should be forced to resign. NASA has a bad image problem and lack of confidence in the management has contributed to it. It is time to replace the present manager with someone who will put safety ahead of cost concerns. All the bad publicity about falling foam since the Columbia disasater has not been worth the cost savings that did not materalize in a fixed problem. If the same manager in charge of the shuttle program at the time of the Columbia disaster is still in charge please work to have NASA replace the manager with someone who has more realistic safety concerns. The future of the space program would be better off with new management.

Dear Keith Cowing, I am a recurring reader of Nasawatch.. and I feel that here is the place, where I can comment on the latest developments on the cracked foam of STS-121: What the hell has NASA been doing the last years?? I thought this is what it was all about: getting rid of cracked foam! Just imagine what could have happened, when this one broke free during max-q. I am starting to lose my faith into NASA's engineering capabilities.

I find the logic behind Mike Griffin's decision to go ahead with the shuttle launch a bit disturbing. He claims that there is no risk to the crew only the orbiter itself ( in the event of more foam damage ). He says that in the event that damage is detected during the post launch inspection, that the shuttle crew can safely wait at the station until they are rescued. RESCUED BY WHAT?!? Is he honestly claiming that in the event of ANOTHER orbiter loss, that we would launch YET ANOTHER SHUTTLE to go and save the previous crew?!? Did he actually think through that line of reasoning.....

Anonymous, Confused, experienced space flight engineer.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 6, 2006 11:43 AM.

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