NASA: Fuel-line cracks found in fourth space shuttle; entire fleet now affected

Friday July 12, 2002

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The potentially dangerous fuel line cracks already discovered on three space shuttles also afflict Endeavour, the fourth and newest shuttle, NASA says. 

The news Wednesday came as no surprise to the space agency, which has already delayed at least one flight and, despite weeks of exhaustive work, has no clear picture as to how or when the cracks occurred. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, two cracks had been discovered in the metal liners of hydrogen-fuel lines inside Endeavour, the last of the four shuttles to be examined. The inspection was expected to continue into Thursday. 

“We’ve got it on the other three, so we’re not necessarily surprised to see that Endeavour has cracks, too,” said NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham. He added: “I think a reasonable person can assume we’ve been flying with these cracks.” 

The problem was first detected three weeks ago on Atlantis. Inspections quickly uncovered cracks in the plumbing of Discovery and then Columbia. The work on Endeavour had to wait until the shuttle returned from Edwards Air Force Base in California, where it landed June 19 following a space station visit. 

Alex Roland, a former NASA historian who teaches at Duke University, said he is just as perplexed as everyone else. The fact that space shuttles of different ages are exhibiting the same trouble makes age an unlikely cause, he said. 

Columbia, the oldest shuttle, has been flying for 21 years, Endeavour for 10. NASA plans to keep the fleet flying for at least another decade.