Space shuttle tank foam loss spurs new probe

Thu Jul 16, 2009 7:10pm EDT
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA will suspend flights of its space shuttle fleet until it understands why strips of insulating foam peeled off the fuel tank used by shuttle Endeavour, officials said on Thursday.

Endeavour arrived safely in orbit after Wednesday's liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida though video and images of the launch showed about a dozen pieces of debris flying off the fuel tank during the 8.5-minute climb to orbit.

Some smashed into the ship's heat shield, though NASA does not believe they caused any serious damage

"We're not worried about this one, but we need to understand what's going on for the next flight," said shuttle program manager John Shannon.

NASA has seven more shuttle launches planned to complete construction of the International Space Station. Its next flight is targeted for launch on August 18.

NASA has been concerned about foam shedding from the tank since losing shuttle Columbia in 2003. A debris impact during Columbia's launch breached the ship's heat shield, which caused Columbia to break apart as it flew through the atmosphere for landing. Seven astronauts died in the accident.

NASA redesigned the tanks to stem foam loss and implemented new procedures and equipment to check for damage after launch.

The images of Endeavour's launch showed strips of foam peeling away from a part of the tank that previously had not been a problem, Shannon said.   Continued...

<p>The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Joe Skipper</p>