NASA Expects Space Shuttles to Fly Again by Next Spring
NASA has made sufficient progress modifying the space shuttle fleet to warrant growing confidence that the spacecraft can safely resume flying next spring, space agency officials said.
Wayne Hale, deputy manager of the shuttle program, said that while much more work needed to be done, “we have made significant progress across the board.”
Mr. Hale said the pace of shuttle modifications included enough reserve time to complete everything by next spring.
The remaining three space shuttles have been grounded since the Columbia disintegrated in the atmosphere upon re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, resulting in the loss of its seven-member crew. The investigation board attributed the accident to a piece of fuel tank foam hitting the edge of a wing and damaging it in the launching, and a breakdown in management procedures at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The space agency said it had completed 3 of 15 recommendations that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board specified for flights to resume.
John Casper, manager of the shuttle program’s integration and planning office, said in a telephone news conference that half of the remaining recommendations should be completed by August. Mr. Casper said agency engineers and technicians were 70 percent to 80 percent along in addressing six more recommendations.
“We have made a lot of progress,” he said.
Mr. Casper said an independent advisory group headed by the former astronauts Thomas P. Stafford and Richard O. Covey, which is overseeing NASA’s progress in returning to flight, has concurred with the agency’s compliance with three of the mandatory recommendations.
These include making arrangements with national security agencies to use spy satellites and other “assets” to examine shuttles in flight for possible damage; putting into use nondestructive techniques to inspect the heat-shielding material on the leading edge of the shuttle’s wings; and revising procedures for inspecting and certifying critical systems immediately before flights.
Major issues that remain include finding ways to prevent significant debris shedding from the external fuel tank and developing a remote inspection system for shuttles in flight, they said.
Launching of the shuttle Discovery is now set for a period between next March 6 and April 18. This “return to flight” mission to the International Space Station would test new procedures for future flights and bring spare parts and supplies to the station.In the seven months since issuing the original plan for resuming shuttle flights, agency officials said, NASA has moved ahead not only to comply with the accident board recommendations, but also to look into other ways to make shuttle flights safer.