- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

An advisory panel suggested yesterday that NASA immediately begin searching for ways to allow astronauts to escape from space shuttles in emergencies.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also recommended that the space agency improve the inspection and certification of the fleet to guard against mechanical problems that could become more common as the three remaining shuttles age. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration hopes to use the orbiters until 2020.
The independent advisory panel completed its annual report before the Feb. 1 disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and it wrote that "no changes have been made to the report as a result of the loss of Columbia." But the group's recommendations mirrored some of the concerns raised since the disaster, which killed seven astronauts.
The nine-member panel said an escape system would "significantly increase the chance for crew survival in case of a major mishap."
NASA has studied options to let astronauts leave shuttles during flight, but the space agency hasn't committed to a plan allowing astronauts to make emergency escapes.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told the advisory panel he was reluctant to commit to finding a crew-escape plan. NASA has said such mechanisms would cost too much and add too much weight to the shuttles.
The advisory group, headed by retired software engineer Shirley C. McCarty, also expressed concern that the shuttles were beginning to show their age. Discovery of cracks in flow liners and fuel-line leaks have provided evidence of degradation.
"The number of these problems is going to increase as the fleet and facilities age and are reused," the panel warned in its 106-page report.
Wear and tear on the shuttles underscore the need to re-evaluate the space agency's certification process, the panel said.
The panel said unexpected failures have occurred late in launch countdowns over the past year. A hydrogen leak was discovered before one shuttle launch last year, and an oxygen leak was found prior to another launch.
The problems could have been detected earlier with more specific or more stringent screening, said the panel, adding that NASA should update its shuttle testing and inspection procedures.
Despite concerns about the aging fleet, the advisory panel said NASA's shuttle program had an excellent safety record.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also suggested that NASA expedite its cockpit upgrade program, which is underfunded. The second phase of that program would equip cockpits with new displays of information about shuttle mechanical systems.
Congress chartered the NASA advisory panel in 1967 after the Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts.
Meanwhile, the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board held its fourth public hearing yesterday at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Roy Bridges, director of the space center, told investigators that he never believed insulating foam shedding from external tanks posed a safety risk to shuttles.

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