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Florida Today July 30, 2005

'We're going to fix it'

Griffin believes shuttles will fly before year-end

By Patrick Peterson

HOUSTON - NASA still may be able to launch another shuttle this year, NASA administrator Mike Griffin said Friday.

"I think we're going to fix it in short order," he said, referring to the problem of foam falling off the shuttle's external fuel tank.

Expressing some of the most optimistic views heard this week, he said people should not panic about the loss of a large piece of foam that broke away from the tank.

"I believe folks really have overreacted a little bit," said Griffin at a teleconference Friday. "We have always said perfection was unattainable."

Griffin said he believed the foam-shedding problem could be fixed for a September or November launch of shuttle Atlantis.

"We're not conceding that," he said.

If there is no launch this year, the next launch window in which the shuttle could get to the International Space Station is in March.

Griffin said the U.S. would not cancel the shuttle program and give up its leadership role in manned spaceflight as a result of the foam problem.

"We missed it in three or four spots, and we're going to fix those," Griffin added. "We clearly haven't done our best, yet, and we will."

An aerospace engineer for 35 years, Griffin said the space agency would "stick to it" and repair the tank, which lost at least three pieces of foam, including a 0.9 pound piece, which is about half the size of the chunk that doomed Columbia.

Griffin admitted he had "no idea" whether fixing the external tank would require a simple retrofit or a complicated redesign.

Any changes would have to include an overhaul of the tank now attached to Atlantis, which is in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.

A detailed scan of Discovery's heat shield revealed 25 minor dings caused by launch debris.

The damage is about one-sixth of the average number of 145 strikes seen on past orbiters after re-entry.

"This is the cleanest flight practically that we have ever seen," Griffin said.

Some NASA observers said Griffin's view was too rosy.

"I guess you could say it's progress as long as (the foam) didn't hit the orbiter," said Don Nelson, a former NASA engineer and persistent critic of the agency. "It sure looks like they didn't do their job.

Other critics said the Discovery launch can't be seen as a success.

"I think it's a failure, in the sense that the piece that came off was half the size of the piece that killed the Columbia crew," said John Pike, a space policy analyst with Web site GlobalSecurity.org, near Washington.

"My concern is that we're just going to do some kind of temporary fix and keep flying," said Pike, who doesn't believe NASA has the money to replace the shuttle with a new spaceship while continuing to fly missions.

"I think too many of them (at NASA) are on anti-depressants," Pike said. "It's the only way I can explain their incurable optimism."

Griffin repeated statements by NASA engineers and managers, who are repeatedly admitting that they were wrong in their assessment of the stability of foam on what's called the protuberance airload ramp.

"We came to the wrong conclusion," Griffin said. "We believed we had calculated the largest pieces of foam that could come off the tank."

The liquid fuel tank must be sheathed in insulating foam to prevent ice buildup on the tank, which could break away during launch and damage the orbiter.

Since the shuttle program began in 1981, NASA engineers have battled the foam-shedding problem, which caused the Columbia disaster.

Discovery and Atlantis are considered test flights for the revamped shuttle program, which relies on decades-old vehicles and technology.

Griffin said the White House, which has set a 2010 retirement date for the shuttle orbiters, has not backed off that date to allow extra time to complete the International Space Station or repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

President Bush, in a policy called "The Vision for Space Exploration," outlined a plan to return to the moon by 2020.

Griffin said a variation of the rocket elements used on the shuttle could be used as vehicles for the next stages of space exploration.

"We think the existing components offer us huge cost advantages," he said. "We need to retire the shuttle in an orderly way and build the Crew Exploration Vehicle."

Griffin also said he hopes the shuttle can service the Hubble telescope before 2008, when it will require new batteries and other repairs to keep working.

Copyright 2005, Florida Today