- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

NASA officials hope to resume spaceflight as early as the fall and have ordered an internal review of the shuttle program to identify safety and efficiency problems.
William Readdy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration associate administrator for spaceflight, released a document yesterday that orders a review of many of the issues that have become the focus of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board's inquiry.
"We wanted to get the team focused on returning to flight, so that was the motivation behind this," Mr. Readdy told reporters at NASA headquarters.
In his two-page memo, written Wednesday to Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the International Space Station and Shuttle Program, Mr. Readdy instructs engineers to look at the insulation used on Space Shuttle Columbia's external fuel tank and whether astronauts can perform in-orbit inspection and repair of thermal-protection tiles.
He also directed engineers to review policies for photographing the shuttle during critical periods of flight, how the agency identifies and resolves safety issues during shuttle missions and how NASA handles discussions of those in-flight safety issues.
While NASA engineers begin their own review, the accident investigation board is looking into the role played by the foam insulation that NASA officials know peeled from the shuttle's external fuel tank and into the tiles on the orbiter's left wing that were struck by the insulation.
Immediately after the explosion of Columbia Feb. 1, NASA officials said there was no way for the astronauts to repair broken tiles.
NASA's internal review will also cover how the agency deals with in-flight safety issues. Its handling of internal communications became an issue after the agency released a series of e-mails from engineer Robert Daugherty, who said Columbia could suffer significant damage upon re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.
His messages weren't passed on to senior NASA officials.
No matter what the space agency concludes, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said, the department will be guided by the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. But NASA didn't want to wait until investigators completed their review of the explosion before identifying problems in the shuttle program, he said.
As NASA officials said they believe they can resume safe shuttle flights, retired Adm. Harold Gehman, chairman of the investigation board, indicated Tuesday that Columbia's destruction may have been partly because of its age.
"If it turns out to be age related, so be it. We'll deal with it," Mr. Readdy said. "I think the expectation is we will return to flight."
Mr. O'Keefe said he thinks the shuttle fleet could fly safely for the next 10 years and perhaps through 2020.
Next week NASA will begin meetings with contractors to discuss the safety and efficiency improvements that workers will have to make to ensure the shuttles can resume safe flight.
Even though NASA is plotting a quick return to space, Mr. Readdy acknowledged that the next shuttle flight might not happen for two years, pending the outcome of the investigation into Columbia's destruction.
"We don't know what happened. When we find out what happened, we're going to be an awful lot more informed in terms of how long it's going to take to return to flight," Mr. Readdy said.

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