Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More on Discovery's heat shield problem.

Unfortunately, the rumors on space shuttle Discovery's heat shield problem are no longer just rumors. Today, carries a story with details. While NASA has not yet confirmed the story, it also has not declined it. So it must be well rooted.

The story confirms what I have written yesterday. However, it adds a subtle but important detail: there is no way to detect the suspected type of damage once in orbit. So should the situation worsen during the launch, there is no way to find out before reentry. This is indeed a scary scenario. However, the story also tells:

However, given the data appears to point to worst case scenarios, and that flight experience has seen such issues before, shuttle managers may decide that the risk is no greater than they've previously flown with, allowing the launch to proceed on track.
So there still seems to be hope. Of course, my firm opinion is that no missing should be flown when there is unacceptable risk. But face it: spaceflight is a risky business. The astronauts know that and everyone else in the shuttle program does. So what is now important is an in-depth technical analysis, and a good risk analysis based on that. Then, decisions can be made. And these decisions should neither be driven by the urge to fly in any case nor by over-cautiousness. I believe that the NASA folks will have the standing to do the right thing. They should not let them move too much by public (uninformed) opinion. But while I trust them, I still hope the situation is not as bad as it looks.


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