View Mobile Site

NASA to double-check data before deciding whether to order repairs to shuttle gouge

    HOUSTON — Astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour on Thursday were studying how to fix a gouge in the ship’s belly just in case NASA ordered a spacewalk to make the repairs.
    As the astronauts reviewed the instructions, NASA managers double-checked data that has suggested an in-flight repair would not be necessary.
    The space agency has spent nearly a week agonizing over the 3 1/2-inch-long, 2-inch-wide gouge that resulted from a debris strike at liftoff. NASA wanted to run one final test before making a decision.
    Part of the gouge, a narrow 1-inch strip, cuts all the way through the tiles, exposing the thin felt fabric that serves as the final thermal barrier to the ship’s aluminum frame.
    NASA managers, though, said they were optimistic that the shuttle should safely return to Earth without repairs by spacewalking astronauts. A decision was expected by Thursday evening.
    Officials also were studying a rip in astronaut Rick Mastracchio’s glove that brought Wednesday’s spacewalk to an early end, and they were loath to authorize another one until they knew more. But they said those concerns wouldn’t stand in the way of crucial repairs.
    ‘‘If we decided we needed to go do this, I would feel very comfortable doing it. We’ve done a lot of spacewalks without any glove problems,’’ said John Shannon, the mission management team’s chairman.
    Endeavour’s crew spent early Thursday learning what to do if NASA orders the repairs. Astronauts on the ground have been practicing the techniques so they can send the crew precise instructions and answer any questions.
    Under the latest scenario, Mastracchio and astronaut Dave Williams would apply black paint to the white gouge and squirt in a caulk-like goo, while balancing themselves on the end of the shuttle’s 100-foot robot arm and extension boom.
    The exposed area and the gouge itself are so small that NASA is not worried about a Columbia-type catastrophe at flight’s end. They are concerned, however, that the underlying aluminum structure might be damaged enough by the searing heat of re-entry to warrant lengthy post-flight repairs.
    Officials have to balance those fears with the risk that astronauts wearing 300-pound spacesuits and carrying 150 pounds of tools could bang into the shuttle and cause more damage as they try to fix the gouge.
    Putting the wrong amount of the caulk-like repair goo into the gash or failing to put it in exactly the right spot could make the problem worse, Shannon said.
    The unprecedented patching job on Endeavour, if approved, would be performed on the next spacewalk, now set for Saturday, a day later than originally planned to give engineers more time to analyze the situation. That could keep Endeavour and its crew of seven at the space station at least an extra day.
    This is the second time in three shuttle missions that a glove has been damaged during a spacewalk at the station. Engineers are uncertain whether sharp station edges are to blame or whether it’s wear-and-tear.
    An astronaut could die if he couldn’t make it back to the station before his oxygen supply leaked out through the cut in his spacesuit. Officials said an astronaut generally would have 30 minutes to get back inside, but that would depend on the size and shape of the damage.
    It could take astronauts longer than 30 minutes to get back to the station from the spot under the belly where they’d be doing the repairs, officials said.
    Teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan also spent time Thursday speaking with students in Virginia and Idaho, where she taught before moving to Houston in 1998 to become the first teacher to train as a full-fledged astronaut.
    In her conversation with young people at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Virginia, Morgan said the members of the doomed crew were mentors ‘‘that have meant more than anything to me.’’ Morgan was Christa McAuliffe’s backup for the 1986 flight.
    ‘‘They were my teachers and I believe they are teaching us today still,’’ said Morgan, who held an emblem from the fallen crew up to the camera as the event ended.
    That chat was moderated by the Challenger commander’s widow, June Scobee Rodgers.
    Morgan also squirted soapy water on her face to demonstrate how astronauts keep clean, and crewmate Al Drew brushed his teeth, spitting into a towel because sinks won’t work without gravity. Morgan also encouraged the children not to give up on science, even if they think they aren’t good at it.
    ‘‘Oftentimes when you’re not good at something, it’s just that you haven’t learned how to yet,’’ she said.
    During a ham radio chat with students from her former Idaho school district, Morgan said both teaching and being astronaut involving exploring and learning about the world.
    ‘‘They’re both wonderful jobs,’’ she said. ‘‘I highly recommend both.’’
    ———
    AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this report from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
    ———
    On the Net:
    NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov

Interested in viewing premium content?

A subscription is required before viewing this article and other premium content.

Already a registered member and have a subscription?

If you have already purchased a subscription, please log in to view the full article.

Are you registered, but do not have a subscription?

If you are a registed user and would like to purchase a subscription, log in to view a list of available subscriptions.

Interested in becoming a registered member and purchasing a subscription?

Join our community today by registering for a FREE account. Once you have registered for a FREE account, click SUBSCRIBE NOW to purchase access to premium content.

Membership Benefits

  • Instant access to creating Blogs, Photo Albums, and Event listings.
  • Email alerts with the latest news.
  • Access to commenting on articles.

Please wait ...