NASA Identifies Source of Shuttle Discovery's Crack Problem

The space shuttle could fly its final mission as early as February 24.

Space Shuttle Discovery

Jim Grossmann, courtesy of NASA

After more than two months of delays, NASA said yesterday that space shuttle engineers have diagnosed the cause of Discovery's crack problem, and the defective aluminum alloy struts are being patched and reinforced to shore up the problem. That means Discovery might finally make its final flight as soon as Feb. 24, though no target date has been announced.

Discovery has been grounded since Nov. 5, originally due to poor weather and then for the cracks that developed in five of the 108 aluminum alloy support struts on the shuttle's external fuel tank housing. Poor materials and faulty assembly are to blame, shuttle program manager John Shannon said in a press conference yesterday.

Engineers are patching the cracked struts and reinforcing the 103 remaining struts as a precaution. But the investigation into the failure won't end there. If Discovery's fuel tank struts are substandard, there's a good chance Atlantis's are too – and Atlantis launched (and returned safely) in May of last year. NASA will give Atlantis a thorough examination and make any necessary repairs/reinforcements before it makes its final flight later this year.