Next Shuttle launch: July 1

By Phil Plait | June 17, 2006 12:35 pm

In a press conference held on Saturday June 17 at 11:30 PDT, NASA announced they plan to launch the Space Shuttle Discovery (flight STS 121) on July 1 at 3:43 p.m. Eastern time.

In the last launch, foam was seen falling from the Shuttle’s external fuel tank, and it was a fall like this that caused the loss of Columbia. This then held up the program for some time while the situation was evaluated. While some flight engineers appear to think there is still a problem with foam falling — and have even recommended "no go", meaning they shouldn’t launch — they don’t think the problem is bad enough that the crew is at risk.

My opinion– this was weird. The NASA officials stressed, multiple times, that all engineers were allowed to speak freely, and some said they should not launch. However, they also said that the engineers understand the decision to launch. Even though this was said many times during the press conference, it never made sense to me. How can they recommend not to fly, but then agree to fly? Mike Griffin, NASA Administrator, tried to clear this up– he said that some engineers would have preferred to wait, while others felt it was okay to launch. Griffin knew that a decision needed to be made, and weighing the opinions of everyone, chose to launch. The chief engineers felt that this decision is fine, even if there are some specific concerns.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. It sounds strikingly similar to what happened shortly before the loss of Challenger in 1986. However, Griffin stressed over and over that the risks were minimal.

I am not an expert in this field, so I will leave the analysis of all this to others, and will link to them as they come online (like NASAWatch). For now, I just wanted readers to know NASA will be launching the Shuttle again soon.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (27)

Links to this Post

  1. SciGuy | June 18, 2006
  1. I’ve always wanted to go see a shuttle launch, but doing so would require a vacation. I get the feeling that it won’t happen on July 1, but instead a week or more later.

    It really makes planning difficult. :)

  2. Mark Martin

    I’ve always wanted to see a rocket launch. But I’m not all that interested in seeing anything that’s just going into Earth orbit. What I really want to see is something outward bound. Something leaving on an interplanetary expedition.

  3. Chaos

    “The risk is minimal.”

    This strikes me as another example for “famous last words”. Except they´re not last words, as that guy isn´t going to fly.

    I wonder how the astronauts themselves feel about this…

  4. KingNor

    i have trouble forming an opinion on this too.

    on the one hand, yeah, we want it to be as safe as possible.

    but then again, this is dangerous buisness. and how many people have we lost exploring the earth? we probably lost more on a yearly basis exploring the “new world” than we have in the entirity of the space program.

    I can understand wanting to go forward dispite the risks as evenly as thinking they should figure out a safer way to do things.

    but its silly to think we can have a zero body count exploring someplace as dangerous as space.

  5. hessi

    Well, I think we all can agree this is the safest shuttle flight ever performed.
    The crew knows they have to take a certain risk during their mission, and they are willing to take it. As an engineer I would of course hesitate to give them the green light as long as I can’t guarantee nothing is going to happen. But if they don’t resume the flights during this launch window, the whole plan for the remaining shuttle flights is in danger, and that means the ISS might not be finished. We are talking about billions of Euro, Yen and Dollar.
    And all of that for a less than 1:50 risk for 7 people who are willing to take that risk. In my opinion, that’s a good decision.

  6. Wayne

    hessi is right, what makes this different from Challenger is that the criteria for launch are vastly improved. They’re worrying about things now that they didn’t used to worry about, so overall this launch should be the safest yet, despite the reservations of the engineers. I’m sure the astronauts are ready to go, if you’re ever going to be willing to fly in a shuttle, then this would be a good flight to go on.

  7. It takes guts to make that call.

  8. Troy

    I have a feeling this will be the last or next to last Shuttle (so enjoy it). I think the foam is still a problem. (The foam problem isn’t really a foam problem it is a fundamental problem with putting the vehicle below parts of the launch apparatus). If the shuttle gets hit expect the Shuttle program to be retired. In orbit they will assess damage. If the shuttle is damaged it will almost certainly be detected resulting in stranded astronauts on ISS and destruction of the orbiter.

  9. Melusine

    I think Griffin is making the right decision, though I always do wonder how the astronauts feel about it. Now they’re stating a 1 in 75 chance of something disastrous happening. My question is about the TRAD (Tile Repair Ablator Dispenser), which some guy drew a picture of in the sand for me in April and explained how it was an improvement on the CIPA. Is it ready and working? I was told that it is meant solely to bring the astronauts home, and its use would mean the shuttle program’s demise. But now they are saying foam improvements will be ready next year. So, they are buying time based on contingency plans? And if they have to use the TRAD or CIPA again for repair will they really scrap the program? Or only if they lose the ship?

    Either way, the shuttle can’t sit on the ground–it’s got to go to meet the schedule. (I wish the Hubble servicing mission wasn’t so behind in the queue.)They must feel confident about their repair abilities, but treating it like it’s a car with a spare tire is a bit nerve-wracking. Still there are other risk factors that can still go wrong as well.

    The Houston Chronicle’s
    front page article
    :

    The space agency chief said Discovery’s mission has been carefully planned to deal with debris damage in ways not thought of before Columbia’s heat shield was shattered. The strategy is focused on protecting the astronauts, even if another shuttle is lost.

  10. Gary Ansorge

    NASA is under tremendous pressure to get the shuttle up and running. Congress critters need the visual tv rush to impress upon their constiuents that the money for NASA is being well spent. The basic problem with the shuttle is,,,It’S A freaking Rocket and as such is equivelant to riding a nuke into orbit(ok, maybe a little exageration).

    There are better ways,,,( google physicist Mike Combs)

    GAry 7

  11. The o-rings froze one time (that we know of)…and there was a catastrophic failure (Challenger).

    Foam fell off the shuttle…every single time during lift-off? Wasn’t this a frequent occurance, and people always felt it wasn’t going to be a problem? So there was one catastrophic failure in, what, 150 launches? I’m not saying that a catastrophic failure is an acceptable outcome (obviously!), but if something happens and normally fails to impact that flight/landing, don’t you have to look at the situation differently?

  12. Alan

    The o-rings froze one time (that we know of)…and there was a catastrophic failure (Challenger).

    My general recollection (based on reading/documentaries, can’t cite anything at the moment) is that blow-by of the o-rings was known to have happened many times prior to the Challenger failure. The cold weather on that one occasion just happened to make the problem bad enough to cause the destruction of the vehicle. So it could be said that the o-ring blow-by problem was a frequent occurrence, too, which perhaps led a lot of people to think it wasn’t ever going to be a problem.

  13. Will. Mattsson

    As I read it in the paper, the all of the underside of the vehicle will be photographed after launch at the ISS, and should damage be detected, ANOTHER shuttle will retrieve the crew. So, the one in 75 odds of failure would seem to be offset; but what if the SECOND shuttle also experiences damage, then what? Like an owner of a “48 Dodge in Havana, NASA seems to be praying – yes, I do believe that is appropriate – that all will go well with this aging fleet of vehicles. I sure hope so.

  14. paul

    All launches are risky. Period. The hazards that will be associated with this launch will be lower then the previous launch. I say go for launch.

  15. Thelatest (July /August) ‘Australian Sky & Telescope’ magazine – has a cover feature article titled ‘Discovery’s final mission?’ on this which I read just the other day. Sometimes we Aussies do get to hear the news ontime!

    I hope ‘Discovery’ flies successfully.

    I love the space shuttle – just wish it was better .

    I think they should continue flying it until they’ve got something better and think its record is really pretty reasonable considering the magnitude of its task.

    I recall similiar things were said of the last shuttle mission which got a lot of coverage here with the inclusion of Aussie astronaut Andy Thomas.

    Given the option I’d fly in it anytime. Sapcetravel is dangerous and always will be. So is crossing the road. So is anything worth doing.

    Finally, how is that you Americans worry so much about seven lives with the shuttle, so much that its future & the future spaceflight hangs in the balance yet so terribly little about the wasted thousands of lives in the counter-productive invasion of Iraq? Or so little about the lives of others – Palestineans, Afhnaistanis, Africans etc .. blighted by ill-considered US policies? As a nation you seem to do so little to prevent the needless loss of life in other parts of the globe, so little to stop unneccessary wars, fight preventable poverty and disease -yet somuch to see that people choosing to risk their lives doing what they love and have striven for have their risks put incredibly low.

    I’m not saying be careless about the shuttle flights or fail to do what is reasonable for safety but I am saying as loud & clear as I can :

    GET SOME PERSPECTIVE HERE!

    Of course,’Discovery’ should fly!

    And even its loss shouldn’t be the end of the program but a chance to improve and expand it – I feel very sure that’s what those on ‘Columbia’ and on ‘Challenger’ would have said were they able.

  16. Wish I could edit these posts.

    If ‘Discovery’ flies but something goes wrong -if it is lost then it would be a terrible blow. But it would be worth doing and the people lost would have died doing what they love having been granted chances most of us never get.

    When you compare that with the lives of the majority of people on this Earth, when you look at the caution, money, energy and efforts on their behalf -and the lack of caution and concern for life in, oh say, the decison to invade Iraq for one example or to blindy support Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinean territories for another or our lack of intervention to help most African nations out of their very dire circumstances for a third instance…

    Perspective people, that’s my point.

    Succed or fail the shuttle has been and remains a technological wonder and a real US achievement which you folks can take enormous pride in and celebrate.

    Its not risk free. Not cost free in money and, sadly, lives too on occasion. But it is very, very much worthwhile.

    ‘Discovery’ should fly. And fly again & again until an even more magnificent spacecraft replaces it.

  17. The decision is based on the fundamental premise: human space flight is risky. So, the important thing is that NASA management, all the way up to the administrator, has created an open forum where engineers can present all the technical risk of the mission — including the fact that its probable there will be a catastrophic failure sometime in the life of the shuttle program. However, its up to NASA management and the astronaut crews to decide if the mission is worth the risk. There’s never going to be 100% reliability, so the question is how much risk do you accept. That’s not a technical, engineering decision, that’s a political/command/management decision. And I’m glad to have them make it as long as they are listening to and understanding all the engineering facts.

  18. Jon Niehof

    Another eerie Challenger similarity: “Engineers had hoped to implement a redesign before Discovery’s flight, but wind tunnel testing showed the proposed change fared worse than the old design.” Same thing happened with the O-rings. Of course, I suspect that redesigns of less-than-stellar systems frequently wind up being even worse; if they were that easy to get perfect, they would have been the first time.

    I think I get Griffin’s rationale on this: the danger is only one of crew loss on reentry, so he will scuttle the program and send rescue craft if there’s damage on launch. That will be the loss of the program but not the crew. OTOH, delaying much longer will put the completion of ISS past the 2010 window, meaning the loss of the program. I just hope everyone has the gumption to call the shuttle lost if there’s damage, unlike in 2003.

  19. BMurray

    I was going to post something to everyone saying the flight is not too risk that went something like, “everyone who thinks it’s safe enough should fly on the mission” but then I realized that every one of you — hell me too — would gladly step up to the plate. If it was ten times more dangerous I’d still probably do it and many of you probably would too. So I have to conclude that where we have smart people taking a calculated risk like this for science and (let’s not paint this with too much nobility) thrills, the failures we’ve seen are not actually catastrophes in any interesting sense. The reaction to them often is, but the event itself is not a thousand inncocents losing their lives as a result of something they cannot control (fire, flood, war, famine, disease). It’s a small number of people and an expensive piece of machinery being lost despite carefully evaluating the risks, acknowledging them, and proceeding.

    If I was picturing Griffin forcing astronauts into the cockpit under threat of dismissal I’d maybe feel differently, but I expect they are celebrating his decision. So more power to them and if there is a failure, let’s hope that the reaction is to correct the defect and get on with things rather than to shelve the project as unfittingly “dangerous”.

  20. warren

    The difference between a scientist and an engineer is that a scientist accepts risks. However in the Challenger’s case, those in charge wouldn’t listen to the engineers who were unfortunately proven to be correct. While some risk in this has to be acceptable, can we trust the decision makers to make the right decision?

  21. Joshua

    NASA is a different place than it was in 1986, this much seems clear. The fact that we’re hearing about these risks at all shows that.

    Melusine, I think what was meant about losing the program if they have to use TRAD/CIPA again is that damage requiring tile repair indicates that the foam damage problem is likely unsolvable.

    My recollection of Discovery’s last flight is that they solved something like 80% of the foam shedding. But foam still shed, including a piece large enough to cause catastrophic damage (which fortunately did not impact the shuttle). They tried to eliminate as much of the last 20% shedding as possible in the latest overhauls, but there’s a possibility that a similarly significant foam shed will occur, and also the possibility that it was cause damage to repair.

    I guess the suggestion is that if we can’t fix the problem after spending three years and however much money on it, we probably won’t ever fix it and run the risk of catastrophic failure from foam loss on every flight. More importantly, if we do lose Discovery, even if the crew stays safely on the ISS as is the contingency plan, the program be able to complete it’s mission of finishing the ISS before 2010 without it. So a loss or even significant but repairable damage to Discovery would be akin to losing the whole shuttle program.

  22. Rapdentious

    I suppose that wrapping the insulation on the tank in a high strength mesh like a Christmas ham was thought about and rejected. Anybody know why?

  23. Irishman

    The first external tanks were painted. The weigth savings by not painting it were significant. ISS runs in a higher inclination orbit, which means it takes more fuel to get there. The coating would have to be VERY light to not effect the performance of the Shuttle enough to allow it to reach the correct orbit and still carry the payloads. Impacts to payloads (like how much carried up at a time) means work on sizing modules and things is in question.

  24. Fred

    I live 20 minutes from Canaveral, just moved here a year ago, and HAVE to go watch the bird bird go up. I must admit, I am really excited about it.

  25. yeah, it’s real easy for the nasa decision makers to give the go ahead for the launch, cause their asses wont be in shuttle if something catastrophic does happen.

    this sounds exactly like what happened the last shuttle disaster

  26. Once again as the skunk at a lawn party:

    I believe the heroic period of manned space exploration ended over thirty years ago.

    I share grief about the loss of life on the Challenger and Columbia shuttles. But are those who perished best seen as heroes, or as victims of callous political hubris battening on public sentimentality. Doubt on this should be removed by noting the cleverly chosen ethnic composition of the ill fated Columbia crew. Something for everyone.

    One life lost for every eight missions should force rethinking priorities. Why continue to lose good people?

    I believe “manned space travel” to have become a less desirable objective the more we know about space.

    In fact, I feel that promoting (and actually carrying through) manned space travel is counterproductive to our scientific understanding. Already, the unmanned program has contributed to our knowledge many times what manned flights have done. Mostly what we have learned specifically from the manned program has been human physiology, and much of that does not bode well for the extensive explorations contemplated by its enthusiasts. The original reasons for manned flight were largely political, and the Columbia crew selections (and high school science experiments onboard) fell into that category. This played well with a generation brought up on “Star Trek” and other space operas. We do enjoy these fantasies, but we should take care not to confuse them with a description or prediction of reality.

    The “shuttle” in particular is a political boondoggle and pig’s-trough for well connected contractors. Aside from ball point pens that write upside down, it has produced little to justify the expense. And the joke is that Cosmonauts prefer pencils! As for the “International Space Station”, this is clearly more of an endurance contest than flagpole sitting, but differs from that mainly in the matter of scale. The presence of humans (and the life support mechanisms necessary to their survival) merely disturbs useful observational opportunities. Unmanned probes are far more stable, cheaper, and safer. And can go further and see more.

    Why are manned space programs counterproductive? Because after tremendous expense with little scientific result or worse (many of the Apollo shots, those that left earth, came close to disaster), the political enthusiasm is likely to turn into its opposite and jeopardize funding for the presently superior unmanned robotic approach.

    It is often suggested that manned space exploration puts us closer to world unity and peace. Unfortunately, the historical record is otherwise. The predominant world power that has done it most extensively seems to be currently moving in another direction entirely.

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