July 27, 2005
Just one day after the launch of Discovery, NASA announced that all future space missions are grounded for safety concerns. After two years of research, NASA still can't figure out why pieces of foam are falling off the shuttles. For that reason, they decided to ground all future missions.
Images show a small piece of foam dropping from the external fuel tank at the time of Discovery's liftoff. While it appears now that the foam did no damage to the shuttle, NASA is taking no chances.
"This tank issue is a big deal. You obviously can't continue launching shuttles if you do not know why big pieces of potentially catastrophic insulation are falling off," said NASA analyst Bill Harwood.
NASA spent all day scanning the outside of Discovery with a camera and a laser sending back picture for analysis. Over 100 cameras caught the piece of foam separating from the fuel tank just two minutes after liftoff.
"This has been one hell of a day. This has been one of heck of a lot of robotic operations doing these inspections. It worked like a champ but it is a lot of work," said Flight Director Paul Hill.
NASA thought it had fixed all of the foam issues since Columbia exploded two and a half years ago upon reentry. With that not being the case, they are grounding the next mission set to take place in September.
"If this is what we have to do to keep the crew safe and to convince ourselves that we have done the right thing going uphill, then it's absolutely worth that level of effort," Hill said.
But while NASA believes they are being safe, detractors of the space program say this could be another blow to the agency's credibility.
"I think it says that they still don't understand this vehicle. That they have not done everything that they could [have] to minimize the risk. And that continues to be a vehicle that's going to put its crew in jeopardy," said Director of Globalsecurity.org John Pike.
The grounding is expected to be for an indefinite amount of time. NASA officials expect to know by Thursday afternoon whether the foam did any damage to the shuttle Discovery. Its mission is expected to last a total of 12 days.