Shuttle Launch Carries Calculated Risk, NASA Chief Says

By Mike Schneider
Associated Press
Saturday, July 1, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 30 -- NASA chief Michael D. Griffin is taking a calculated gamble by going ahead with the launch of Discovery, overruling two top managers who fear that foam flying off the fuel tank might harm the space shuttle.

The world will soon know if his gamble pays off.

Discovery was set to blast off from Kennedy Space Center at 3:49 p.m. Saturday, the first launch of a space shuttle in almost a year and only the second since the Columbia disaster in 2003. Storm clouds forecast for the afternoon remained the chief obstacle to launch. The shuttle faced no technical problems a day before launch.

"The vehicle is remarkably clean, certainly as clean as I've ever seen it," Griffin said Friday.

The seven astronauts said they are confident of his decision to go ahead, but hardly any astronaut ever publicly expresses fears before a launch.

"I believe we'll be as safe as we were on my other flights," said Steven W. Lindsey, Discovery's commander, who has flown on three previous shuttle missions. "I haven't really seen a decision made that I didn't agree with."

Faced with a 2010 deadline to finish building the international space station and end the shuttle program, Griffin wants to get the shuttles flying again and believes that a delay now would create schedule pressure toward the end of the decade.

He has acknowledged, though, that he would probably shut down the shuttle program if another vehicle is lost.

"We are playing the odds," Griffin said Friday. "What you pay us for as taxpayers is to understand those odds in great detail. . . . It's called risk management."

The board that investigated the Columbia accident faulted NASA three years ago for placing schedule concerns ahead of safety, squelching dissent and steamrolling over the concerns of engineers who had worried that foam from the huge external fuel tank had hit the shuttle during launch.

When Columbia was reentering Earth's atmosphere, fiery gases penetrated the wing where the foam had knocked a hole, causing the shuttle to disintegrate. All seven astronauts were killed.

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