NASA clears Discovery for re-entry
SPACE CENTER: After much soul-searching and analysis, NASA cleared Discovery to return to Earth next week, concluding that there was no need to send the astronauts out on another spacewalk to repair a torn thermal blanket near a cockpit window.
Mission managers could not guarantee that a piece of the blanket won’t rip off during re-entry and slam into the spacecraft, but they said the chance of that happening was remote and that it would be riskier to try to fix the problem. “The lowest risk, the best choice and the unanimous decision of the engineers in the management team is that we should re-enter as is,” deputy shuttle programme manager Wayne Hale said in a news conference on Thursday.
Discovery’s astronauts awoke late Thursday prepared to pack up. They planned to transfer a cargo container from the station back into the shuttle’s cargo bay in preparation for the ship’s undocking from the station, set for Saturday. NASA had been considering sending the astronauts out to snip away part of the blanket for fear a 13-inch (33-centimeter) section weighing just under an ounce could tear away during the latter stages of descent and strike the shuttle, perhaps causing grave danger.
Wind tunnel tests hurriedly conducted on real thermal blanket samples showed it is possible tiny pieces of the fabric might shred off, Hale said. In the worst situation, he noted, there is a 1.5 percent chance that the entire 13-inch (33-centimeter) section would come off and hit the shuttle.
It’s possible, under that remote circumstance, that the cloth could strike the rudder speed brake and create a hole and 6-foot-long (1.83-meter) crack, but even that would not be enough to endanger Discovery and its crew of seven, Hale said. He noted, however, that there are a lot of assumptions and variations in that chain of analysis, “so is that the absolute worst thing that could happen? Well, no, it’s not.”
“I am not here to tell you that we are 100 percent confident that there is no risk during re-entry. That would be untrue and foolish to even try to make that case,” he said. “But I am here to tell you that we’ve assessed this risk to the very best of our engineering knowledge and we believe that it is remote, small, whatever adjective you want to put with that.” ap