At McAuliffe Center, questions of space shuttle's safe return

Peter Reuell

As the director of Framingham State College's McAuliffe Center, Ray Griffin pretty much fields the sort of questions you'd expect: What's it like in space? What is weightlessness like? How fast to rockets go?

Over the last few days, though, the questions asked by students attending summer programs at the center have taken a darker turn.

As NASA officials debate this week about whether to attempt to fix a hole in the space shuttle Endeavour's heat shield, many students have asked whether the craft's seven-member crew can be rescued, and what might happen if they aren't.

``I think the concern is what you would normally expect from a fifth, sixth, or seventh grader,'' Griffin said. ``They're curious, they know there's a problem, so it's `How is it going to be fixed? What would happen if it can't be fixed? What are the alternatives?' ''

The problem is a 3 1/2-inch-long gouge found in the underside of the shuttle which penetrates through the craft's heat shield - the product of a chunk of foam which hit the shuttle during takeoff.

A similar chunk of foam slammed into the wing of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, leaving a hole which allowed hot gases to burn through the wing and destroy the shuttle on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Although students at the center, named for Christa McAuliffe, the Framingham State alumna who was killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion, have expressed worry over the problem, Griffin said most are confident the shuttle will return safely.

``I can't say the kids are standing up and saying, `Woe is me, here's another seven that are going to die,' '' he said. ``This morning ... we happened to have one of the belly (thermal) tiles, so we tried to show them how the gouge occurred, and what it means when this thing starts to re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

``So it is a problem, it's not a problem without a solution. In fact, we're pretty sure a solution has already been transferred to the astronauts, they now have to work out this spacewalk, this unplanned spacewalk, and figure out how to fit it in.''

As additional information comes in about the shuttle's condition, Griffin added, the center will discuss the situation with students to ensure they understand what's going on.

Hudson resident Charles Precourt, father of four-time astronaut Charlie Precourt, was even more confident the shuttle crew would return safely.

``When you think about this, go back to Apollo 13, and look at what they fixed, it is not impossible by any stretch of the imagination that this can be fixed,'' he said. ``I`m very pragmatic, and I know how skillful they are.''

Peter Reuell of The MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.) can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at preuell@cnc.com.