Discovery structural problems delay final launch




Nagging structural problems with Discovery shuttle’s fuel tank have delayed its planned Feb. 3 launch to the International Space Station by a couple of weeks — or longer — although NASA has not made a new launch date official.

The previous launch window extended until Feb. 10 and won’t reopen until Feb. 27, though officials said a launch before then remains a possibility.

At a weekly review meeting, shuttle program manager John Shannon told his team to avoid “working toward a calendar date,” according to NASA spokesman Kyle Herring. Instead, Shannon said engineers simply should concentrate on fixing cracks that have appeared — or could appear again — in metal rods that support the mid-section of the 15-story fuel tank.

Breaks in two of these “stringers” first were noticed during an aborted launch of Discovery on Nov. 5, and subsequent tests have found at least three more that are cracked, Herring said.

NASA officials still have not identified the root cause of the problem, though they’ve said the broken stringers were made of a “mottled” alloy that tested weaker than the metal used for other supports. But engineers think they have a solution: reinforcing about a third of the roughly 100 stringers. The work is expected to begin Monday.

Shannon and other NASA officials are expected to make a decision next week on when Discovery would fly again.

Only two or three more flights remain before the shuttle fleet is retired for good, and every delay increases the program’s overall cost to the agency.

In October, President Barack Obama signed into law a NASA blueprint that calls for a third shuttle flight on top of the two already on the schedule.

But budget debates on Capitol Hill have raised concerns that there may not be enough money to pay for it — especially if fiscal conservatives decide to slash NASA’s budget of about $19 billion.

Shuttle advocates have argued that the three missions are necessary to help stock the space station with supplies and spare parts to help the floating observatory survive until NASA develops a replacement spacecraft — a prospect that remains years away. However, commercial spacecraft are scheduled to begin flying supply missions by 2012.

– Orlando Sentinel


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