NASA: 16 chunks of foam fell off space shuttle tank last July

NASA says 16 pieces of foam insulation broke off the fuel tank of the space shuttle Discovery during its launch last July, offering many chances for harming the spacecraft in the same way Columbia was doomed three years ago.

It's the first time the space agency has put a number on the pieces of foam that snapped off during liftoff last year in the first flight since the Columbia disaster. Engineers had hoped to prevent any threatening loss of foam and were disappointed when it happened again.

"The large size of some of the foam losses caused concern because they were much larger than analysis had predicted was likely," the space agency said in an update on its Web site recently.

Columbia's seven astronauts died when a large piece of insulation struck a wing during liftoff, leaving an unnoticed hole that ultimately allowed fiery gases to penetrate the spacecraft as it headed home for a landing at the end of the mission. The shuttle broke apart over Texas.

Cameras spotted foam breaking off Discovery last summer, but the shuttle was inspected by the astronauts in space and found safe to fly home. The shuttles were grounded again, however, to try to correct the vexing problem. NASA has removed a particularly troublesome section of foam from the external tank.

Another space mission is tentatively set for May, reports AP.


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