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Shedding Shuttle

space-shuttle-launch.jpg

Once again NASA is dealing with shuttle damage caused by a chunk of foam. And, as a result, once again we're pondering the state of America's space program.

The cool website How Things Work reminds us what was done in the wake of the Columbia disaster a few years ago:

One hundred and seven cameras (Infrared, High Speed Digital Video, HDTV, 35 mm, 16 mm) have been placed on and around the launch pad to film the shuttle during liftoff.

Ten sites within 40 miles of the launch pad have been equipped with cameras to film the shuttle during ascent.

On days of heavier cloud cover when ground cameras will be obscured, two WB-57 aircraft will film the shuttle from high altitude as it ascends.

Three radar tracking facilities (one with C-band and two with Doppler radar) will monitor the shuttle to detect debris.

New digital video cameras have been installed on the ET to monitor the underside of the orbiter and relay the data to the ground through antennae installed in the ET.

Cameras have been installed on the SRB noses to monitor the ET.

The shuttle crew has new handheld digital cameras to photograph the ET after separation. The images will be downloaded to laptops on the orbiter and then transmitted to the ground.

A digital spacewalk camera will be used for astronauts to inspect the orbiter while in orbit.

Finally, engineers and technicians have installed 66 tiny accelerometers and 22 temperature sensors in the leading edge of both wings on the orbiter. The devices will detect the impact of any debris hitting the orbiter's wings.

So, as proved during each of the missions subsequent to Columbia, engineers are going to see what falls off during ascent. What then? According to "How Stuff Works," options include applying pre-ceramic polymers to small cracks or using small mechanical plugs made of carbon-silicone carbides to repair damage up to 6 inches in diameter.

In this case, according to AP, views reveal that "the first foam fragment came off at 24 seconds after liftoff and appeared to hit the tip of the body flap. The second was 58 seconds after liftoff with a resulting spray or discoloration on the right wing. The third came almost three minutes after liftoff, too late to cause any damage to the right wing."

As an aviator its hard for me to imagine flying a craft I knew had a high likelihood of shedding parts after every launch, but I guess that's why astronauts are still considered a breed apart (diaper jokes notwithstanding). I have faith in folks like my friend and former squadronmate "Grace" Kelly (the pilot on the current mission) but at the same time I wonder if it isn't time to move past this 26-year-old platform.

More details surrounding the current situation at Military.com.

-- Ward

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