HOUSTON - When the space shuttle Discovery lifted off Saturday, it left some serious destruction in its wake.
NASA inspectors found damage of an ?unprecedented? magnitude at Discovery?s Florida launch site, said LeRoy Cain, chair of NASA?s mission management team, at a briefing here at the Johnson Space Center.
Strewn all over the seaside Launch Pad 39A area at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., inspectors found bricks and mortar from the trench designed to catch the flames that shoot out beneath the shuttle when it launches. The debris flew as far as the perimeter fence 1,500 feet (457 meters) away from the pad.
NASA officials say they are unsure what caused the destruction, the level of which has been unseen in previous launches, but they have already assembled an investigation team to look into the issue further.
?We?ll go figure out what caused this much damage and we?ll fix it,? Cain said.
In addition to being unusual, the pad damage is somewhat worrying because NASA has only two shuttle launch pads and both must be in working order for its next planned mission, the STS-125 flight to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope, to launch in October as planned. Unlike current shuttle flights to the International Space Station, where astronauts can take refuge if their spacecraft is damaged until a new one can be launched, the mission to Hubble has no such safe haven. So instead, NASA needs a second shuttle on a second launch pad to serve as a rescue ship.
For STS-125, NASA plans to prepare a primary shuttle to launch from Pad 39A, as well as a backup rescue shuttle that would be ready to launch from its other pad, 39B, if needed.
So giving up on Pad 39A completely is not an option, Cain said. ?We need both launch pads, so that?s not a negotiable term at this point.?
Switching to Pad 39B as the primary launch pad would also present issues, as this site is currently being readied for use in NASA?s next manned spaceflight endeavor, the Constellation program. Ground crews have already begun converting Pad 39B from a shuttle launch site to the liftoff pad for the Ares I rocket, the booster intended to carry the capsule-based shuttle successor Orion to space.
The last time this pad was used for a shuttle launch was on Dec. 9, 2006, for the liftoff of Discovery?s STS-116 mission.
?If our plan were to go launch again off of Pad B, there would be things we would be doing that we are not doing and have not been doing,? Cain said. To switch would, he said, cause ?some aches and pains.?
Both launch pads date back to the days of the Apollo program in the 1960s, so it?s possible that the site is just getting old, NASA officials said. It will take more investigation to determine the reason for the destruction, they added.
Despite the puzzling nature of the issue, Cain said he cannot foresee it causing a delay to either of the two remaining shuttle flights scheduled for 2008. The shuttle Atlantis is slated to launch toward Hubble on Oct. 8, with its sister ship Endeavour to follow on Nov. 10 on a space station-bound flight.
?I have no reason to believe that we?ll delay the mission in October,? he said. ?I?m completely confident that we?ll be able to put the necessary repairs in place.?
Though the damage may raise questions about future missions, it should not have any effect on the shuttle currently flying. Mission managers do not believe any of the flying wreckage hit Discovery as it was launching to cause harm to the craft.
?We have seen nothing of any of this debris coming back to the vehicle,? Cain said. ?From the standpoint of the ongoing mission, it?s not going to be a concern for us.?
Meanwhile, Discovery?s current STS-124 mission to the space station is going well. Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Mark Kelly, the shuttle arrived at the station on Monday to begin about 10 days of joint work to install a new Japanese laboratory the size of a large tour bus, fix the orbiting lab?s space toilet and swap out one member of the station?s three-man crew.
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