After a tense couple of days in orbit, the space shuttle Discovery landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There was some worry about pieces of foam flying off the shuttle on lift-off, since similar bits of debris doomed Columbia.
The flight was probably the safest yet, though, largely because of the huge number of cameras capturing every vantage point. By analyzing the video the flight controllers were able to determine that the pieces of foam that flew off would not compromise the integrity of the heat shield.
When the shuttle flipped over to show it’s underside to cameras on board the ISS, Mission Controllers noticed two small tabs sticking up between pieces of heat shield. The controllers were worried that the tabs would alter the path of super-heated air currents around the shuttle, exposing portions to more heat than they would normally receive. The crew members conducted three spacewalks and successfully removed the offending tabs from the underside of the shuttle, harnessing themselves to the shuttle’s mechanical arm.
These heat shield problems have probably existed on just about every shuttle flight, and it is only because of the use of legions of cameras that on this flight they all became apparent.
The crew had to miss two windows above Florida because poor weather made a landing impossible, and then had to wait 24 hours before landing in California. Because the shuttle was forced to land in California, NASA will have to spend a million dollars to carry it back to Florida atop a jumbo jet.
Although it would seem that the shuttle program has outlived any practical usefulness, it was important psychologically to spring back from the Columbia disaster by making another shuttle flight.
NASA has shown that it can engineer a safe shuttle flight, but it has also shown how much trouble it’s going to be. NASA, after agonizing and re-designing and spending loads of money, failed to fix the problem that destroyed Columbia: the flaking heat shield tiles.
As a result NASA has grounded planned future flights, according to KHON, and they do not plan to fly again until they can understand why the gap fillers came loose, and other small difficulties. However, the previously posted article by Bennett speculates that ultimately the next shuttle flight will not be delayed by more than a month.
This is certainly an auspicious day for NASA, and it is important to maintain momentum on the manned space flight program in preparation for the introduction of the new, and hopefully more efficient, space transport vehicles.