Local NASA Consultant on Discovery Launch

About 90 seconds into yesterday's shuttle launch, a piece of debris was seen falling off the external fuel tank. NASA consultant Chuck Watson of Savannah says at the very least, it's embarrassing because it's an area that maintenance crews checked and double-checked before liftoff.

"The bad news from a NASA perspective is, oops this piece should not have come off," he said.

Watson thinks it's a protective piece that covers part of the fuel tank which people might have needed to reach before takeoff.

"Probably one end of it wasn't fastened down good, and you get that 3,000-mile-per-hour slipstream going through there," Watson said.

The important thing is that whatever came off the shuttle fell away. The panels that line the underside of the shuttle are remarkable when it comes to resisting heat, but when it comes to standing up to impact, not so much.

Watson demonstrated how delicate the protective tiles are. "We were actually doing a demonstration at a school and someone pointed to it and dinged this tile, so clearly, we don't want pieces of foam or ice or anything hitting these."

That's the concern with another couple smaller bits of debris that so far nobody's been able to identify. First thing today, the crew is scheduled to use a laser system to closely scan the shuttle to see exactly what they were and if they caused any damage.

Watson says the crew of Discovery has a couple people trained for space walks, and if they have to, they've got a special glue-like spray they apply to smaller cracks in the protective foam panels.

Reported by: Chris Cowperthwaite, ccowperthwaite@wtoc.com