KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL - NASA has begun an investigation into the cause of serious damage to the launch pad the agency uses to send the space shuttle to orbit. The massive concrete pad was damaged during last week's launch of Discovery to the International Space Station on a mission to deliver the Japanese Kibo module to the complex.
Launch Complex 39-A was built in the mid-1960's and has endured the pounding blast and heat from the Apollo Saturn V rocket and then the space shuttle throughout the 1980's, 90's and continuing today. While designed for the Saturn V and its 5 liquid fueled engines, the launch pads are strong enough to cope with the blast generated by the huge 3.3 million pound thrust solid rocket boosters of the space shuttle.
That is, until last week. When Discovery lifted off the launch pad, a large 75 by 20 foot section of the special heat-resistant bricks lining the inside of the flame trench was ripped away and blown out the trench toward the north like buckshot along with the booster exhaust. Postlaunch photographs show chunks of debris littering the area behind the pad, all the way to the perimeter fence on the edge of the pad complex.
Additionally, a number of concrete slabs on the pad apron buckled, looking much like a concrete highway buckling on a hot summer afternoon.
Leroy Cain, Chairman of NASA's Mission Management Team stressed that the incident will have no impact to Discovery's STS-124 mission.
"From the standpoint of the ongoing mission, it's not going to be a concern to us," he said. "The imagery and the analysis teams have pored over the liftoff imagery and all of the data that we have and they have assured us they have seen nothing in the way of any of this debris coming back at the vehicle."
However, the launch pad will require extensive and time-consuming repairs before the next shuttle launch. Fortunately, STS-125, the final Hubble repair mission, isn't scheduled to launch for another four months, presumably enough time to effect any repairs necessary.
If the pad can't be repaired in time, then the shuttle program will have to weigh various options to both launch the Hubble mission and minimize schedule impact. The issue is complicated by the fact that the Hubble mission has a requirement that a rescue shuttle be sitting on Pad B, ready for a move to Pad A and launch on a mission to rescue the Hubble crew should that orbiter experience severe damage during launch or on orbit.
But the shuttle on LC 39-B will only be readied for launch from that pad. If a rescue mission becomes necessary, the shuttle would be moved to Pad A and launched from there.
Since it hosted its last launch in 2006, Pad B has begun the initial stages of refurbishment to support the Ares I-X test launch next year. The pad itself is no longer able to support a shuttle launch without extensive processing. Leroy Cain believes it would be possible to launch from 39-B, but emphasized it's a bit early to be thinking in those terms and so it's still somewhat of an unknown as to how much work the pad would need in order to support a launch from there.
"There are some things we would want to go do," Cain said. "Do we have time to still change the path we're on and go do that? We'd have to study that. My answer today would be yeah, I believe we could figure out how to go do that. Will there be impacts to both the shuttle, potentially the station and no doubt the Constellation program? I'm quite certain there would be... It's early for me to be talking about it in terms of really knowing what we have here at Pad A because I don't know what we have. And it may not be an option we would want to pursue at all," he said.
If 39-B were to be required for STS-125 or later missions, that would then have an impact on the Ares I-X launch and the extensive modifications that need to be complete before the first full-scale Ares I launches a few years later. That's something NASA wants to avoid, already under pressure to minimize the gap between the end of the space shuttle and Ares/Orion becomes operational.