Grounding the Shuttle Fleet.

In the days after Discovery launched on July 26th, 2005, NASA ground crews began to examine photographs and telemetry obtained during the launch to check for anything suspicious. NASA was taking these precautions to prevent the type of disaster that destroyed Columbia on reentry.

Columbia’s leading edge of her wing was impacted by a piece of foam insulation on the big orange colored external fuel tank.

The foam damaged the heat-resistant carbon heat shield, and upon reentry that section failed, causing Columbia to break up upon reentry. In the wake of this event, NASA implemented a number of procedures to make sure it didn’t happen again.

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Discovery’s return to flight was to see if the changes made to the orbiter paid off. Sadly, there were still issues with the foam insulation during this launch.

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Pieces of foam fell off during the launch of Discovery on STS-114. Thankfully, they didn’t impact the Shuttle, but NASA still saw fit to ground the fleet in the wake of this development. What was troubling is that the agency had just spent the previous two years fixing the foam problems that had affected numerous missions to varying degrees. After Discovery launched there was not another launch for nearly a year, as NASA continued to mitigate the issues with foam insulation on the exterior tank, pictured last. If you look closely you can even see the white space where a big chunk of foam came off.

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According to a NASA press release, the foam that fell off of the external tank measured between “24 to 33 inches long, 10 to 13 inches wide and 2/5 to 8 inches thick” and “was seen by high-resolution camera equipment added to the Shuttle system after the loss of Columbia in 2003.”

In addition to the foam loss on the external tank, there was also an incident involving some of the thermal tiles on the shuttle.

There were gap fillers that were protruding from between the tiles and according to NASA “it was decided to allow Robinson, (one of the STS-114 astronauts) the attempt to pull out the protruding gap fillers with his hand or forceps or remove the protrusions with a hacksaw. The astronauts received training on using the robotic arm and worked on assembling a hacksaw if they should need it.”

These procedures and protocols showed that NASA adapted to what was learned after the loss of Columbia. The rendezvous pitch maneuver, EVA activities to repair tiles, and other emergency procedures were developed to protect astronauts and the orbiters. The rendezvous pitch maneuver or RPM is pictured here. The Shuttle essentially did a backflip so astronauts on the ISS could take pictures of the heat shield that would be downloaded to ground controllers for analysis.

Thankfully the rest of the Shuttle flights launched and landed without the loss of life or the spacecraft. The Shuttle program officially came to an end with the touchdown of Atlantis on July 21st, 2011, check out Episode 68 to hear more about that final mission.

Picture Credit- NASA

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Hosts The Space Shot & The Cosmosphere Podcast. Podcaster. Techie. Bibliophile. Space science & history nerd.

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