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Shuttle problem persists

Posted by Richard on July 28, 2005

After more than two years and a billion dollars, NASA still hasn’t solved the problem of the fuel tank foam peeling off in chunks and potentially damaging the critical shuttle tiles:

The detection of another large breakaway piece of insulating foam is a potentially devastating setback for NASA and a bitter counterpoint to the elation of the seemingly perfect launching of the Discovery, a return to flight for the shuttle fleet that was hailed as an inspiring comeback for the space program. "We decided it was safe to fly as is," Parsons said. "Obviously, we were wrong."

This seems like a good time to remember what William Anderson of the von Mises Institute pointed out just over two years ago — the Columbia crew died because of irrational environmentalism:

… the particular foam that was in use at the time was an environmental substitute replacing a material that had worked well. However, the previous foam used to insulate the Columbia’s external fuel tanks contained Freon, which is a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) that the EPA banned because of the ozone depletion scare.

As Steven Milloy reports, NASA could have sought an exemption. Freon, after all, is inert and nontoxic, and its connection to ozone depletion is tenuous at best. However, having been burned by the EPA once before (as I will point out), NASA succumbed to what Milloy calls "PC foam." He writes, "PC foam was an immediate problem. The first mission with PC foam resulted in 11 times more damaged thermal tiles on Columbia than the previous mission with Freon-based foam.

Furthermore, the damage was obvious—and quite severe. Milloy writes that following the 1997 Columbia mission, "more than 100 tiles were damaged beyond repair, well over the normal count of 40."

As did the Challenger crew in 1986:

It was an unusually cold morning at Cape Canaveral, too cold for the O-rings to perform properly. That is well-known. What most people do not know is that the material used to make the O-rings was a substitute to replace a product that the Environmental Protection Agency had banned because it contained asbestos.

The original O-rings used between the rocket joints came from an over-the-counter putty that had been used safely and effectively for a long time. However, in its war against the use of asbestos anywhere, anytime, the EPA forbade NASA from using that product at all after the space agency had sought an exemption. The EPA, not surprisingly, refused that request, something that would ultimately lead to the next disaster 17 years later. The new product, not surprisingly, failed and we know the rest of the story.

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3 Responses to “Shuttle problem persists”

  1. VRB said

    It would seem that the adhesive would be more problematic than the content of the tiles.

  2. VRB said

    I meant the content of the foam.

  3. Anonymous said

    Jumpin’ Jiminy, more unintended consequences that put the “zap” on Big Gummint’s decision making processes.

    See ya at breakfast tomorrow.

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