Nose cap inspection may delay return of space shuttle to flight

Friday, October 3, 2003

NASA wants to find out if the nose cap of the space shuttle Atlantis was inspected properly for corrosion, an action that could further delay the first shuttle launch since the Columbia disaster, an agency official said Thursday.

Officials planning the return to space next year have questioned the inspection of the metal framework inside the nose cap, which can corrode. The problem has been found and fixed on the shuttles Discovery and Endeavour, said James Hartsfield, a NASA spokesman in Houston.

Whether or not Atlantis' inspections were satisfactory has come into question, he said.

NASA officials had hoped to launch Atlantis as early as March or April but acknowledged last month that the schedule will be pushed back. The NASA executives who make up the Spaceflight Leadership Council planned to discuss the nose cap inspections and possibly pick a new launch date at a meeting Friday.

The three remaining shuttles have been grounded since Columbia broke up over Texas.

Atlantis' last maintenance overhaul was in 1997-98, and Hartsfield said he didn't know if the nose cap was thoroughly inspected then or whether subsequent checks were performed.

The nose cap's metal framework is covered with reinforced carbon-carbon, the same material that lines the leading edge of the space shuttle's wings for protection against the searing heat during re-entry. During Columbia's liftoff, foam insulation from its external fuel tank broke off and hit the wing's carbon-carbon edge, causing a crater that let in hot gases and led to the spacecraft's destruction.

Atlantis' nose cap could be examined with ultrasound or by a structural inspection or other methods that might detect corrosion. The nose cap also may be sent back for inspection by its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Vought Systems Corp. in Grand Prairie, Texas, Hartsfield said.

It's still possible Atlantis might be launched next summer, he said.


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