CAPE CANAVERAL -Discovery's heat-shield tiles sustained significantly less damage during NASA'ssecondpost-Columbia test flight, a sign that the agency is starting to get adeadly foam-shedding problem under control, a NASA official said.
During post-landinginspections, engineers noted a drop of about 33 percent in the number of damagespots on heat shield tiles on the belly of the orbiter.
There also was almost a 50percent decrease in the number of hits greater than one inch - defects moresusceptible to sustaining further damage when exposed to extreme temperaturesduring atmospheric reentry.
"The vehicle lookedvery good," Thomas Ford, a member of NASA's ice-debris inspection team atKennedy Space Center, said Wednesday. "It's definitely gratifying."
Columbia and sevenastronauts were lost on re-entry in February 2003 when hot gasessurged into the orbiter through a hole created when its heat shield was struckby a 1.67-pound piece of external tank foam insulation about 82 seconds intoflight.
Since then, NASA engineershave modified the tank to try to prevent chunks of foam large enough to causesevere damage from breaking free at critical times during launch.
Only 11 strikes larger thanone inch were found on Discovery during inspections conducted on Kennedy SpaceCenter's three-mile runway earlier this month. Inspectors found 21 after lastsummer's flight.
The drop is a sign that safetymodifications meant to prevent the shedding of large foam chunks areworking, Ford said. NASA engineers still are working on other designchanges that should reduce the problem even further.
"Do we have a handleon it? Yes. Is it still a problem? Yes," the Merritt Island resident said."But we're getting better at it."
Published under license from FLORIDATODAY. Copyright ? 2006 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this materialmay be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.
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Todd Halvoron is a veteran aerospace journalist based in Titusville, Florida who covered NASA and the U.S. space program for 27 years with Florida Today. His coverage for Florida Today also appeared in USA Today, Space.com and 80 other newspapers across the United States. Todd earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, journalism and fiction from the University of Cincinnati and also served as Florida Today's Kennedy Space Center Bureau Chief during his tenure at Florida Today. Halvorson has been an independent aerospace journalist since 2013.