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Raleigh Engineer: Shuttle Woes Underscore Need For New Spacecraft

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A crack on the space shuttle Discovery is of big interest to people like North Carolina State University mechanical and aerospace engineer Dr. Fred Dejarnette, who helped develop the protective tiles on the shuttle back in 1968.

Not seeing the latest problem -- a piece of foam that popped off Discovery's external fuel tank while it sat on the launch pad -- up close makes it hard for him to speculate on whether it should be delayed or not.

NASA officials spent most of Monday debating that same concern before they decided to move forward with Tuesday's scheduled launch.

"I wouldn't expect that to be a critical area," DeJarnette said. "But obviously, because of other accidents, the big concern is do we need to launch right now."

In 2003, a foam chunk brought down space shuttle Columbia, killing seven astronauts. And a similar problem last year prompted an in-space repair before returning to Earth.

But DeJarnette said that all the problems within the past few years underscore the need for a new spacecraft design -- something he said he wants to be a part of, just like in 1968.

Shuttles have been used repeatedly for the past 20 years. In fact, if Discovery is launched on Tuesday, it would be the spacecraft's 32nd launch.

"The first one was launched in 1981," DeJarnette said. "So obviously, they've gone way past the time that they should've been replaced."

With the space shuttle's current design expected to be phased out by 2010, NASA is looking for a new model, and Dejarnette and a team of engineers are submitting a proposal for a spacecraft that looks much like the Apollo design from early space travel. A new model could be ready by 2012.

"This is one of those few opportunities that come along for something new and everybody is anxious to get on with it," he said.

Proposals are due Friday and anxious engineers may know in the next few months if their project is chosen.

As for Discovery, the crew is headed to the International Space Station to deliver supplies, test safety procedures and transport a German astronaut who will stay for six months.

The mission is expected to last 11 days.


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