CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA managers on Saturday picked July 1 to launch the first space shuttle in almost a year, despite recommendations against a mission by the space agency's chief engineer and safety offices.
The decision to launch Discovery on a trip to the international space station was made after two days of meetings by NASA's top managers and engineers at the Kennedy Space Center.
During a poll of top managers, representatives from NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance and the Office of the Chief Engineer recommended against flying until further design changes are made to the external fuel tank. Despite their recommendations, the dissenting managers didn't object to making a launch, NASA officials said.
The ultimate decision to fly was made by NASA administrator Michael Griffin.
"The administrator ... has the obligation to decide. That's what I do," Griffin said. "Our staff offices ... have the right, have the obligation, have the utter necessity to tell us exactly what they think. But all of that is advice."
The most contentious debate focused on whether the shuttle's external tank should undergo further changes in 34 areas called ice-frost ramps. About 35 pounds of foam already have been removed from an area of the tank where a 1-pound piece fell off during last July's launch of Discovery. NASA described it as the biggest aerodynamic change ever made to the shuttle's launch system.
Representatives from NASA's safety and chief engineer offices said at the meeting that the shuttle shouldn't fly until the ice-frost ramps are redesigned. A large piece of flying foam from the external tank struck a wing of Columbia during its launch in 2003, allowing fiery gases to enter the shuttle and kill the seven-member crew during descent.
Griffin said the decision to fly poses no risk to Discovery's seven astronauts because NASA has devised new inspection and repair techniques to the shuttle, and as a last resort the astronauts could stay at the international space station until a rescue shuttle arrives.
The pieces that have come off the ice-frost ramps in the past have been small, and NASA plans to redesign the ice-frost ramps in the future so that they won't pose hazards, Griffin said. NASA leaders also have said the shuttle should fly with only one major modification to the tank at a time.
NASA's three shuttles are scheduled to be grounded in 2010, once the international space station is constructed.
"I think it is acceptable for a number of reasons to go fly for a limited number of flights until we come up with a new design," said Wayne Hale, shuttle program manager.