Nasa has announced it is grounding all future shuttle flights as a result of the piece of insulation foam that broke off during Discovery's launch earlier this week - the same problem that caused the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Examination of video footage taken during Tuesday's launch revealed that a sizeable piece of hardened foam broke off from the shuttle's external fuel tank. While it did not hit Discovery, it was a piece of such debris that damaged Columbia's wing, causing it to break up on its return to Earth with the loss of all seven astronauts on board.
"Until [the problem is solved] we will not fly again," Bill Parsons, the shuttle programme manager, said yesterday. "Might as well let that out now. Until we are ready we will not fly again. I do not know when that will be. This is a test flight. Obviously we have more work to do."
The break-up of the foam represents a tremendous setback to Nasa, which had spent more than $1bn over the past two-and-a-half years trying to solve the problem. It is unclear what this means about the future of the shuttle programme, which is due to end in 2010. If the problem is not solved it could mean that Discovery's flight is the last.
Astronauts on Discovery have been inspecting their ship for damage. Preliminary checks found that part of a tile, a component of the shuttle's heat shield, also broke off from the area around the shuttle's landing gear door.
Discovery is due to return to Earth from the International Space Station in 11 days' time.Reuse content