Shuttle tile problem requires sticky fix

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA hopes to test a thermal tile patch on the next space shuttle mission that could have been used to fix the gouge carved into the bottom of Endeavour during last month’s launch.

The repair — a squirt of goo — was one of three methods NASA considered using before deciding the damaged tiles didn’t need to be fixed in flight.

Once the tile-repair demonstration is formally approved Monday, a fifth spacewalk will be added to Discovery’s two-week flight to the international space station. Two shuttle astronauts will use a device similar to a caulk gun to squirt the goo into deliberately damaged tile samples, and small foam brushes to tap down and smooth the material. The tiles will be returned for analysis.

Hale called the demonstration — which was moved up by more than a year — “a confidence builder.” The salmon-colored goo, which has the consistency of peanut butter, has been tested extensively on the ground, but never in space. It has a tendency to bubble on Earth, and NASA wants to see if that happens in space.

NASA concluded last month there was no need to apply this substance to a 3&189;-inch-long gouge on Endeavour’s belly that was caused by a piece of foam insulation and possibly ice that broke off the external fuel tank during liftoff. But the episode reminded NASA it needs to sharpen its repair skills, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.

The astronaut who will do the repair demo, Dr. Scott Parazynski, said the delicate work on fragile tiles will be like surgery.

“This is a very exciting time for us to finally get the ground truth if you will — or the space truth — on how this material behaves,” he said.

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