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The US returns to space - first lessons from the STS-114 space mission, part XNUMX

The initial lessons from the STS-114 space mission, while examining the technical/engineering aspects of the operation, the implications of its results for the future of the space shuttle program and the International Space Station, and for NASA as a whole. Second article in the series

Amber dew

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Discovery Mission Objectives

The STS-114 space mission was defined as an experimental mission, to examine various repair capabilities in space. The main points of the mission:
• Examining the ground and air tracking system for the space shuttle
• Examining the camera system installed in different places on the space shuttle
• Conducting experiments in various repair procedures in space conditions - including repairing damaged insulation tiles
• Transferring essential supplies to the International Space Station and removing trash from it

Problems discovered during the mission

During Discovery's mission, several incidents related to the spacecraft's thermal protection system were discovered:
• Small pieces of ceramic insulation tiles fell from various areas of the shuttle's belly
• A large piece of insulating foam fell out of the external fuel tank
• Insulation blankets were torn from the window area of ​​the crew compartment
• Insulation surfaces that are between insulation tiles in the belly of the shuttle came out of place and protruded out

It should be noted that a significant part of these problems was detected by the complex array of cameras installed in the space shuttle, as well as by photographing the shuttle from the International Space Station. The fall of the insulating foam was a bitter disappointment to the NASA volunteers and Lockheed Martin, the contractor of the fuel tank. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in order to understand the reasons for the fall of the foam, which caused the Columbia disaster, and the fall of such a large piece, from a place close to the one from which the piece that hit the Columbia fell, was a particularly painful failure. Fortunately, this block of foam broke off in space, and did not damage the shuttle. Had the drop been a little earlier, the space shuttle Discovery might have been seriously damaged.

First patch in space

After examining the photographic information of the damaged areas in the space shuttle's insulation blanket, it was determined that the tears in the insulation blankets do not endanger the return of the shuttle, but it was determined that the protruding parts of the shuttle's belly must be removed. A new procedure was designed to fix this problem, which was not known to exist, including the improvisation of a saw to remove the parts. An astronaut attached to the maneuvering arm of the space shuttle, and reached the lower part of the shuttle's belly - for the first time ever. It turned out that there was no need for sawing, and he pulled out the two pieces of insulating material that were sticking out, and returned them to the shuttle, in order to examine the reasons for the release of these components.

Landing the ferries

While still in orbit around the Earth, Discovery caused a storm on the ground, when it was announced that the other two NASA shuttles, Atlantis and Endeavor, would be grounded until the cause of the insulation foam falling from the main fuel tank was determined, and the defects repaired. It should be noted that the space shuttle Atlantis was expected to take off for a space flight in September 2005, about a month after the return of the space shuttle Discovery from space. In the entire history of the space shuttle there have been three groundings - after the Challenger disaster in 1986, the Columbia disaster in 2003, and during the Discovery mission in July/August 2005. From this one must understand the importance that NASA attributed to the problems discovered during the mission.

Postponing the next launch

After the space shuttle Discovery landed, it was learned that the next launch scheduled for September 2005 - March 2006 had been postponed. The postponement is necessary because NASA wants to transfer the fuel tank back to the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin) in order to deal once and for all with the serious problem of the insulation foam falling off. However, due to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to the fuel tank production facility located in Louisiana, the launch will most likely be postponed until the end of 2006 - to the point of being delayed a year from the planned date, and maybe even more. Serious problems in the schedule of the remaining shuttle launches cast a heavy shadow on the prospect of completing the construction of the International Space Station by 2010 - the year the shuttles are taken out of service. There is a possibility that towards 2010, the date set by the Commission of Inquiry into the Columbia disaster as the last to take the shuttles out of service, the pressure will increase from various parties to allow an exception of several years beyond this date, in order to complete the construction of the International Space Station and meet NASA's obligations to the partner countries to the station building. Of course, such a decision would have serious safety implications.

The future of ferries

Upon completion of the article and its transfer to print, it became known that NASA has decided on its next generation launchers, modified launchers based on space shuttle technology, which will eventually bring American astronauts to the moon and serve as a stepping stone for manned missions to Mars, according to Bush's vision for space exploration. At the moment, conflicting voices can be heard in the USA - some are calling for the extension of the use of the space shuttles beyond 2010, and there are those calling to take advantage of the opportunity to postpone the launch of the next shuttle until the end of 2006 and announce the end of the use of the space shuttles already now.

Europe, a senior partner in the International Space Station program, shows great displeasure with NASA's delays, which cast a heavy shadow on the launch into space of the European component to the space station. Japan is also not satisfied with the postponement of the launch date of the Japanese complex to the space station, and has already started considering options to launch it on expendable Russian-made launchers.

It seems that many countries and diverse space programs are directly affected by the delay in the flights of the space shuttles, and that many parties in the world are waiting for the decision to end their historic role in space exploration. It is to be hoped that a decision - in any direction - will be based on technical data and independent safety assessments, and not on a desire to continue owning an expensive prestige symbol. It must be understood that the American space shuttles were groundbreaking in many fields, and served the American space program for decades, but the time has come to look honestly at the fleet of shuttles that were built with the technologies of the XNUMXs - and say "thank you" to them, transfer them to a museum and move on with new tools of the twenty-first century .

The Columbia Disaster Commission of Inquiry website
Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 mission site
General background material on the US space shuttle
Ydan "Back to Space" which follows the stages of NASA's return to flight from the beginning, including flight 114 coverage
Compilation of Tal Inbar's articles on the Hidan site

* Tal Inbar is the vice president of the Israel Space Association and a researcher at the Fisher Institute

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