NASA on Monday conducted a swift series of tests on the ground to determine whether a disturbingly deep gouge in Endeavour’s belly needs to be fixed for re-entry, while a pair of spacewalking astronauts replaced a broken space station steering device.
The gouge is relatively small — 3.5 inches by 2 inches (9 by 5 centimeters) — but part of it penetrates through the protective thermal tiles, leaving just a thin layer of felt material over the space shuttle’s aluminum frame to keep out the more than 2,000-degree Fahrenheit (1,100-degree Celsius) heat of re-entry.
Mission managers expect to decide on Tuesday or Wednesday whether astronauts should go out and patch the gouge, or whether the damage is benign enough for Endeavour to fly safely home.
Honestly, do they really have any choice? Wouldn’t an attempt to return without any action be a terrible move? What if they decide to forgo repairs and the result is loss of vehicle and crew? And, if the damage really isn’t so bad, when will a better opportunity to test the repair scenario come?
Look, it’s clear that this is going to be an ongoing problem for the rest of the Shuttle program. Every single flight is going to run this risk, and if they didn’t figure something out after Columbia they sure aren’t going to figure something out now. Considering that the mission has been so quickly successful and that the ability to draw power from the ISS means they’ve got the time to approach this however they want, is there any reason to head back without any repair attempt?
UPDATE: Read Mr. X, the Chair Force Engineer, for more. On the money.