Two members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board have said that the problem of foam falling off of the space shuttle’s external tank may never be solved. They may have to settle for minimizing it.
If NASA does return to flying the shuttle without conclusively solving the foam problem, it would mark a departure from its handling of the Challenger accident.
When investigators determined that a joint in the solid rocket motors had leaked hot gases in the Challenger explosion, NASA addressed the defect with at least four major changes, any one of which would have sufficed, according to Challenger-era engineers. As a result, the solid rocket motors are considered one of the safest parts of the shuttle system.
But the Challenger fixes took almost three years and required significant investments. By contrast, NASA officials have attempted this time to avoid a lengthy grounding of the fleet.
There’s a space station up there that is basically just hanging in vacuum until the space shuttle is operational again. This isn’t good news.