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NASA report had warned of faulty foam application

Source: PTI
August 04, 2005 15:14 IST
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An internal 23-page report of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had warned of deficiencies in the way insulating foam was being applied to sections of the fuel tank, to be used on the shuttle Discovery's current mission.

The report was provided to the New York Times by a person outside the space agency, who is part of an informal network of people concerned about shuttle safety.

It did not recommend against launching the Discovery, but delivered a harsh critique of the quality control and practices at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, a media report said on Thursday, quoting the yet unpublished document.

The New Orleans plant, managed by Lockheed Martin, a major space contractor, had come under intense criticism after the foam accident during liftoff led to the loss of space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts in 2003, which included India-born Kalpana Chawla.

While NASA spent two and a half years and some 200 million dollars to address foam problems after the disaster, they resurfaced on July 26 when a piece of foam, as much as 33 inches long, broke from the tank two minutes after liftoff. Future shuttle flights have been suspended until the problems are resolved.

The December 2004 report by Conley Perry, a retired NASA division chief for quality engineering at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said it was obvious that Lockheed's external tank engineers 'did not do a thorough job' of identifying the quirks and variations that can occur when foam is applied by hand.

And despite the space agency's insistence that it would not allow scheduling pressures to dictate a return to flight before it was safe, Perry wrote, its reluctance to re-evaluate the quality-control problems 'stems from the 'schedule-first' attitude' of Lockheed Martin management.

David Mould, the agency's assistant administrator for public affairs, told the Times that a point-by-point response to the report was prepared but could not be released at this time because the information fell under confidentiality rules of the export controls that govern space technology.

'We will defer to NASA regarding specifics of the memo, but would strongly emphasize that safety and quality are the guiding forces behind our workmanship on the external tank,' Marion LaNasa Jr, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, was quoted as saying.

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