Engineers Studying Loss of Foam from Shuttle External Tank

Foam damage on STS-127 tank. Credit: NASA TV

Strips of foam peeled away from Endeavour’s fuel tank
CBS News

Post-launch photography of the shuttle Endeavour’s external tank shows multiple areas of bare metal where thin strips of foam insulation peeled away during the climb to space, the result of an as-yet-unknown mechanism. In at least two “events,” debris hit Endeavour’s heat shield tiles during the early stages of flight when the shuttle is most vulnerable to damage. But mission managers said Thursday there is no evidence of any serious problems that would prevent a safe re-entry.

“There is nothing that we have seen on the orbiter that causes us any concern,” said shuttle Program Manager John Shannon. “Of course, since this looks like a new mechanism of shedding foam off the intertank, we need to understand that. It did not hurt us, apparently, on this flight, because it came off so late. But we’ll need to understand that before the next flight.”

The shuttle Discovery is scheduled for launch around Aug. 18, but it’s too early to say what impact, if any, additional testing might have on that flight or subsequent missions.

Endeavour blasted off on a space station assembly mission Wednesday evening. A camera mounted on the side of the shuttle’s external tank showed multiple instances of foam insulation falling away. In several cases, a larger piece of debris disintegrated in a cloud of fragments after hitting the supersonic airstream.

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