The U.S. space shuttle Endeavor launched Wednesday night when thunderstorms stayed away. Unfortunately, it released a cloud of foam insulation on launching that might have damaged the shuttle’s ceramic insulation tiles. The New York Times describes it thus:
Astronauts in space and engineers on the ground will spend the next few days examining and analyzing the damage to see if it might pose a danger to the shuttle on re-entry.
The shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board, because of damage to its wing caused by falling foam during liftoff.
Of course, that last statement is not strictly true. The Columbia was destroyed because nothing was done to assess and correct the damage before re-entry. It was just another episode of NASA’s de facto policy of “Bolt it all together and pray.” So it gave me a little chill to hear that NASA didn’t think that the lightweight foam did any damage. Did that mean they weren’t going to check it? Hadn’t they heard of velocity? Fortunately, they will still inspect the shuttle for damage.