The space shuttle Columbia came back to Earth last month in such good condition it is being readied for a second orbital test flight on Sept. 30.
"The performance of the thermal protection system on the shuttle exceeded our expectations," the Johnson Space Center's Robert Dotts said at a news conference yesterday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "The turnaround time it will take us to get Columbia ready again will not be affected by any damage the vehicle suffered in flight."
Dotts said that only 10 or 12 of nearly 31,000 foamed glass tiles that cover Columbia's fuselage and protect it from the scorching heat of re-entry were damaged badly enough to need replacement. He said that engineers had counted 303 "drinks and gouges over the entire surface" of the shuttle that will have to be repaired before Columbia can be launched into space again.
Gouges as deep as an inch were found in the tiles covering the main landing gear, appearing as if they were made by chunks of ice that ripped loose from the insulation panels on the large external tank that carried supercold liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Dotts said the tiles were probably gouged and that 80 percent of the damage was done during liftoff.
Astronauts Joe Engle and Richard Truly will pilot the second flight, planned as a four-day test in a 170-mile-high orbit. Columbia's cargo bay will carry 16,000 pounds of instruments to survey Earth resources. The pilots will also test a 60-foot-long mechanical arm that will be used on later flights to deploy and retrieve satellites.