NASA shuttle program managers will lay out the rationale for proceeding with the launch of the space shuttle on October 23. Small defects on three wings panels, two on the orbiter's right wing and one on the left, are at issue in the discussion. The Emperor will listen to the arguments from the program to fly in the face of caution, and from the engineers working for the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) charged with seeing to it that a Columbia-like accident never happens again.
Schedule vs. Prudence.
The shuttle has flown with its heat shield panels and these defects before. Post-flight inspections found that the defects did not appear to worsen after each flight, but engineers have been unable to determine the root cause of the coating loss. "At this point, the space shuttle program has determined that Discovery's astronauts can safely carry out their mission without having to replace the panels," NASA said in a statement.
Sound familiar? It should. Continuing to fly with a known defect that could not be explained fully, but hadn't killed anybody yet, was how we walked down that road to the Columbia accident. Foam flying off of the External Tank became routine until that unfortunate, unlucky day.
Let's hope the shuttle management team takes advantage of the NESC that was formed in the Columbia aftermath to keep such things from happening.