- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 14 (UPI) — NASA wants its space shuttles ready to return to flight this fall and plans a widespread review of equipment, safety assessment procedures and in-flight analysis in preparation, officials said Friday.

The steps to improve shuttle safety will not wait for the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which is trying to track down why the shuttle disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere on Feb. 1 following 16 days in orbit.

NASA's spaceflight chief Bill Readdy disclosed Friday a memo dated March 12 outlining the steps shuttle program managers need to take to get the fleet ready to fly as early as Fall 2003.

In a meeting with reporters, Readdy also discussed his role in a decision to pass up opportunities for satellite imagery of the shuttle during flight. Columbia was hit on its left wing by insulation falling off the external fuel tank. Engineers assessed possible damage and determined there was not a safety issue.

Contrary to reports March 14 in the Washington Post, Readdy said a request to try to obtain images of the shuttle's wing with orbiting spy satellites never was made. A colleague had discussed the issue with an agency capable of tasking the satellites, such as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and told Readdy the offer to image Columbia was on the table. NASA would have to request the service on an emergency or high-priority basis.

"My understanding was that the (space shuttle program) was well aware of those capabilities … and it had concluded that the offer would not contribute to the analysis," Readdy said, reading from a memo he sent two days after the accident to the investigation board, Congress and the agency's Inspector General.

"The conclusion reached by the mission management team was that there was no safety of flight issue and for those reasons there was no rationale for requesting emergency or high-priority support," the memo said.

"If we had thought for a moment there was a problem, we would have asked," Readdy added.

Readdy's memo stated he had no problem if the other agency wanted to image Columbia on a "not-to-interfere" basis, meaning, for example, the orbiter would not change its position to support photography.

The National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the spy satellite network for the U.S. intelligence community, did not take pictures of Columbia, said spokeswoman Cathy Bowers.

In light of the accident, the external tank insulation is enough of a concern that NASA plans to change how the foam is applied to the tank, Columbia investigation board chairman Harold Gehman said earlier this week.

Readdy's memo directs program managers to:

— conduct a thorough review of key space shuttle systems;

— develop concepts for on-orbit inspection and repair of shuttle's thermal protection system;

— review policies for obtaining photographic and radar coverage of the shuttle during critical flight phases; and

— review failure modes and effects, the shuttle's critical items lists, waivers, hazards, and the process for identifying and resolving in-flight safety-of-flight issues.

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