posted 07-12-2005 06:00 PM
Engineers conducted minor repairs to NASA's space shuttle Discovery late Tuesday after an errant window cover fell from the orbiter and damaged its aft section. The incident will not delay tomorrow's planned launched of the orbiter.
Earlier today, a soft plastic cover with foam-lined edges fell from one of Discovery's two overhead windows and struck the heat-resistant tiles of the shuttle's left Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod. No engineers were working in the area at the time, NASA officials said.
The window cover hit a carrier panel on the pod lined with three of the black, heat-resistant tiles that protect the orbiter from searing temperatures during atmospheric reentry. Two of those tiles were damaged, prompting engineers to swap out the panel with a spare, shuttle officials said.
"This is a minor repair for us," said Stephanie Stilson, NASA's vehicle manager for the Discovery orbiter. "We change out carrier panels on a daily basis."
But Discovery is less than 24 hours from launch here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC), so shuttle engineers at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas are busy tonight studying the orbiter's internal structure to ensure the incident did not cause additional damage.
"We fully expect they will give us a go in the morning," Stilson told reporters during an ad hoc press briefing tonight.
Discovery's launch countdown was in a long, planned hold when the damage was reported. The one-hour repair was conducted so swiftly that no changes to the shuttle's July 13 launch at 3:50:53 p.m. EDT (1950:53 GMT), NASA officials said.
Stilson said the shuttle window cover that damaged Discovery weighs less than two pounds and fell about 65 feet before it hit the OMS pod. Its carrier panel target is a piece of aluminum which was pre-bonded with tiles before installation on the orbiter, she added.
Engineers discovered the loose window cover during preparations to rollback the rotating service structure that has shrouded Discovery since it arrived at the launch pad on June 15. That rollback was delayed from its planned 7:00 p.m. (2300 GMT) start due to the needed repairs, NASA officials said.
Discovery will be NASA's first shuttle to fly since the 2003 Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts and destroyed one orbiter.
During Columbia's Jan. 16, 2003 launch, a piece of foam insulation shook loose from the orbiter's external tank and struck its wing, gouging a hole that subsequently allowed hot thermal gases enter the wing and destroy the vehicle during reentry. Although that damage occurred with Columbia's thermal protection system, it was the orbiter's reinforced carbon carbon panel lining the wing – not tiles - that were struck.
NASA has spent the last two and half years redesigning shuttle and external tank system to prevent such launch debris from occurring again.
"I'm actually very proud that we saw it, caught and were able to act so quickly," Stilson said. "That's a great amount of work in a short period of time."
-- Tariq Malik And Robert Z. Pearlman
[This message has been edited by Robert Pearlman (edited July 12, 2005).]