WASHINGTON -- NASA Administrator Mike Griffin expressed confidence July 29 that the U.S. space agency will be able to remedy "in short order" the foam debris problem that marred what he described as the space shuttle's otherwise nearly perfect return to flight July 26.
NASA has suspended future shuttle flights until engineers figure out why large pieces of insulating foam fell off Space Shuttle Discovery's large external fuel tank despite extensive improvements undertaken in the aftermath of the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident.
Although NASA officials said it is too early to tell how long it will take to further modify the shuttle's external tank to avoid a repeat of the foam shedding seen during Discovery's launch, Griffin said he does not expect the newly ordered stand-down to be "a long drawn-out affair."
"We are going to fix it in short order and we are going to get back to flying," Griffin said in his first press conference since NASA decided July 27 to ground the shuttle fleet until the problem is solved.
Griffin called Discovery's mission thus far "the cleanest flight practically that we have ever seen."
He noted that with the exception of the foam loss -- which was well outside NASA parameters of what was expected and deemed acceptable -- the shuttle team and the vehicle itself are performing "better than perfect."
While NASA Deputy Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale said he was "mortified" that a pillow-size chunk of foam broke off the external tank two minutes into flight and just missed Discovery, Griffin described his reaction to the setback much more dispassionately.
"I'm not mortified," Griffin said. "I've had a 35-year career as an engineer in the space business, and I have seen more than one mistake made. We made a mistake."
Griffin said that while NASA gave careful consideration to changing the section of the tank that shed foam this time, shuttle engineers decided it was best to fly as is. Griffin said the July 26 test flight made clear that was the wrong decision, he said.
Griffin said NASA has established a "tiger team" to tackle the foam loss problem and find solutions. He also said that the Discovery's seven astronauts and their two colleagues aboard the international space station will be looking for anything they can do to prepare the station to weather a longer-than-expected gap between Discovery's visit and the next shuttle flight.
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