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NASA Postpones Shuttle Launch

NASA on Friday delayed by another two months the first space shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster, saying it needs more time to ensure that the fuel tank does not shed dangerous pieces of ice or foam at liftoff.

Discovery is now scheduled for launch no earlier than July 13. The flight had been targeted for late May.

A large chunk of foam insulation from the external fuel tank punched a hole in Columbia's wing that led to the shuttle and crew's demise during re-entry in February 2003. Now, the lingering concern involves the possible buildup of ice on the tank once it's filled with super-cold fuel, and the hazard such shards would pose if they came off during the launch and hit the shuttle.

NASA's new administrator, Michael Griffin, announced the delay at a midmorning televised news conference, saying it was the result of recent launch-debris reviews.

"This is consistent with our overall approach to return to flight, which is that we're going to return to flight. We are not going to rush to flight, and we want it to be right, so we're doing what we need to do to ensure that," Griffin said.

Extra repairs to Discovery's fuel tank will be needed, namely the addition of a heater, said NASA's top spaceflight official, Bill Readdy.

The foam responsible for Columbia's demise was intended to prevent ice from building up around the fittings that attach struts holding the nose of the shuttle to the tank, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood. The so-called bipod foam has been eliminated in favor of small heaters.

Foam application techniques were changed to minimize the chances for foam shedding in general. Engineers believe the largest piece of foam that can come off the tank today is less than a half ounce. The piece that hit Columbia weighed some 1.67 pounds.

But recent testing shows ice buildups in two areas of the tank still pose a threat. One of those areas is in the so-called inter-tank region between the upper oxygen tank and the lower hydrogen tank where an oxygen feedline bellows is located. The bellows allows the line to flex slightly during launch.

The testing shows ice can build up on the bellows or on a bracket holding the line in place. Another ice problem area is near the tip of the tank around a bracket that holds a repressurization line.

NASA managers held a second debris verification review, or DVR, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston earlier this week and still were unable to conclusively demonstrate ice was not a threat, according to sources who requested anonymity.

Other problems facing the launch team:
  • One of four hydrogen depletion sensors inside the external tank did not operate properly during a tanking test April 14. Engineers initially a wiring problem was to blame, but so far no such problems have been found. The sensor is critical and flight rules require all four to be operational for launch. To replace the sensor, if that is required, engineers would need to remove insulation, open an access hatch and enter the hydrogen tank.
  • A pressurization relief valve operated, or cycled, more often than expected during the tanking test. Engineers are not yet sure if this is an actual problem or not, but they are looking into it.
  • Hydraulic fluid was blown onto one of the shuttle's aft rocket pods during high winds, contaminating nearly 20 insulation blankets. Engineers want to replace the blankets because of concerns about normal ascent heating and the possibility some of the residual fluid could actually ignite.
A launch delay to July allows NASA to roll Discovery back to the Vehicle Assembly Building where engineers would have much better access and a controlled environment for any repairs or upgrades, including installation of a new external tank heater and replacement of the insulation blankets.

NASA managers have said for months they are not being driven by the launch schedule and a delay to July would appear to be in keeping with that post-Columbia philosophy. But some senior managers, sources say, argue against giving up the May-June launch window unless it's absolutely necessary.

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.