- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

NASA plans to launch its next shuttle as soon as March 11, according to its detailed response to a report from the panel that investigated the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

In a 156-page report released yesterday, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said a window from March 11 to April 6 represents the first opportunity to launch the next shuttle.

NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight William Readdy also said the space agency considers its next flight a mission to test new safety procedures engineers are developing at the urging of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

“This really and truly is a developmental test flight,” Mr. Readdy said during a press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The new report, called a return-to-flight plan, outlines the space agency’s progress in complying with recommendations made by the independent investigation board. Investigators concluded two weeks ago the Columbia disaster resulted from mechanical and management failures. When it completed its own report, investigators gave NASA 29 recommendations, 15 of which are supposed to be addressed before the next flight.

William Parsons, shuttle program manager, said coming up with a plan to inspect and repair thermal-protection panels on the shuttle and the carbon panels lining shuttle wings is the most difficult challenge NASA faces.

“We have some promising techniques we are working on,” said Mr. Parsons, who took over the shuttle program after the Feb. 1 loss of Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts.

NASA engineers are developing a system to inspect and repair tiles and panels in orbit and at the International Space Station. Cameras on board the shuttle and at the space station can photograph most thermal-protection tiles, the report says. NASA’s long-term goals include developing a sensor capable of measuring damage in three dimensions, and engineers are testing lasers at Kennedy Space Center in Florida capable of mapping a shuttle’s exterior.

Coming up with a method to repair thermal-protection tiles and leading-edge carbon panels has proven difficult, according to the NASA report.

NASA said it can use the International Space Station as a safe haven to house astronauts in an emergency. Preliminary studies indicate a shuttle crew could remain on the space station for up to 180 days while astronauts repair a damaged shuttle or the space agency finds another way to rescue the crew.

NASA also said it is trying making the shuttle better able to withstand damage from debris. Investigators have said the shuttles are more fragile than NASA previously thought.

The space agency came up with eight plans for redesigning shuttle systems to make the vehicle stronger, according to the report.

NASA also says it has made progress on work to reduce the amount of foam that comes off the external fuel tank. Engineers have redesigned the bipod ramp, the metal piece that foam came off of during Columbia’s launch and led to its disintegration.

Under a new design, NASA will place a heater in the bipod ramp to prevent ice formation rather than spray insulation on the device.

NASA also wrote in its report that it will address management problems in the agency by ensuring minority points of view are heard. Investigators concluded senior NASA managers simply failed to ask lower-ranking engineers what they thought about the damage Columbia sustained almost 82 seconds after liftoff, when foam insulation hit its left wing and opened a hole 6-10 inches in diameter.

Mr. Readdy acknowledged that making those changes will be difficult.

“Obviously, we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

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