Monday, June 19, 2006

the wrong stuff

NASA managers have rejected last-ditch pleas from their top safety officer and chief engineer to scrap next month's shuttle launch, saying that they will press ahead despite potentially catastrophic risks.

The head of the US space agency, Dr Michael Griffin, overruled warnings that there was a "relatively high" chance the shuttle's external fuel tank could shed some of its solid foam coating when it launches on 1 July, carrying seven crew including Briton Piers Sellers, an Edinburgh University graduate.

In 2003, falling foam knocked a hole in Columbia's wing, causing the craft to break up as it returned to Earth, resulting in the deaths of seven astronauts. Last year, Discovery came within inches of disaster when a chunk rattled loose from the tank and nearly struck the orbiter seconds after lift-off.

During a weekend meeting at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Dr Griffin gave the final nod for next month's mission, despite what he called an "intensive and spirited exchange" with senior colleagues who recommended a "no-go". "We have elected to take the risk," he said.

If the mission ends in disaster, NASA's multi-billion dollar shuttle programme will be scrapped, leaving construction of the International Space Station unfinished and marking the end of an era in human spaceflight.

via TBogg

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