The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Shuttle Fleet Grounded Again

Falling foam still too much of a risk

3 min read

28 July 2005--The space shuttle Discovery blasted off its launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Tuesday morning, finally returning the U.S. shuttle fleet to flight, following a two-and-a-half-year grounding in the wake of the Columbia disaster. But the celebratory atmosphere was soon tempered when newly installed cameras on the Discovery's huge external tank revealed a chunk of foam, about 70 by 30 by 20 centimeters, peeling off the tank during the ascent to orbit.

Though this foam did not strike the Discovery, in February 2003 a slightly larger piece of foam from an external tank struck the leading edge of Columbia's left wing, and the resulting 25-cm hole allowed superheated air to enter the Columbia, destroying the spacecraft during reentry. Consequently, much of NASA's efforts since then were aimed at ensuring that large pieces of foam could not come off the tank. With the apparent failure of these efforts, yesterday evening NASA ordered the rest of the shuttle fleet to be grounded again--indefinitely.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions
Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

Keep Reading ↓Show less