- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

HOUSTON (AP) — The Columbia accident investigators said yesterday they may recommend that NASA stage a demonstration space shuttle flight before resuming full-scale missions.

Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said such a test flight appears unlikely, at least for now. But he said the panel is considering the idea and may include it among its return-to-flight recommendations “if we think that’s what it takes” to safely resume missions.

Adm. Gehman did not elaborate on what a demonstration flight might entail. But Columbia’s first four flights, back in 1981 and 1982, were considered test flights by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Each time, only two pilots were aboard — instead of the full crew of five to seven — and they had ejection seats.

NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said the board has not yet asked the space agency to consider a demonstration flight.

NASA will await the board’s recommendations before putting together any return-to-flight plans, he said.

The recommendations almost certainly will include the need to re-evaluate shuttle inspections and closer oversight by NASA, whose role has dwindled dramatically over the past several years, the board noted.

Columbia was on its 28th flight when it shattered over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts. The board suspected that a piece of foam that broke off the fuel tank during liftoff put a hole in the leading edge of the left wing, allowing scorching atmospheric gases to penetrate during re-entry.

The investigation board also is considering whether some or all of the shuttle components should be recertified for another 20 years of flight.

In the military, recertification of aging airplane parts can be a long, extensive process.

Adm. Gehman and others on the 13-member board will start moving to Washington next week and begin writing their final report, expected to be completed by the end of July. He expects a “very, very thick report,” extending all the way back to when NASA decided to build space shuttles.

At yesterday’s news conference, Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal said he and others on the board are focusing on the need to improve the quality of NASA’s hands-on shuttle inspections, which have decreased because of a shift in this work to contractors.

Until the mid-1990s, NASA itself conducted more than 40,000 inspections at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in preparation for a shuttle flight, compared with 8,500 right before the Columbia disaster, Gen. Deal said.

No one interviewed by the board — “from line technicians all the way through management” — was satisfied with the quality or number of inspections, Gen. Deal said. Some critical inspections that have been turned over to outside contractors should be overseen more closely by NASA once more, he said.

“There are a few things that NASA is not laying their eyes on that are critical ones … and we believe that they should be laying their eyes upon all those crit-one items,” Gen. Deal said.

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