- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

NASA officials said yesterday they still have a lot of work to do to prepare for the next shuttle mission.

But nearly a year after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, killing seven astronauts and initiating a scathing review of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the agency said the next shuttle could be launched as early as Sept. 12.

“Right now there is not a showstopper that says we can’t get there,” said Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the International Space Station and space shuttle programs at NASA.

The space agency still must figure out how to inspect and repair thermal-protection tiles like those damaged during the launch of Columbia.

Investigators concluded a chunk of foam insulation broke off Columbia’s external fuel tank and slammed into the leading edge of its left wing, creating a gap that allowed scorching gases to penetrate the orbiter and cause its destruction Feb. 1 moments before it was scheduled to land.

Investigators also said management problems at NASA are as responsible for Columbia’s demise as mechanical errors.

William Readdy, NASA’s associate administrator for spaceflight, said in a conference call with reporters that the agency is trying to address those issues, too.

“It’s not about what we say. It’s about what we do,” he said.

A committee assembled by NASA to measure its efforts to comply with recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said last week that the agency has not done enough.

The NASA-appointed Return to Flight Task Group, headed by two former astronauts, said NASA has improved the safety of the space shuttles, but it hasn’t complied fully with the recommendations of the accident investigation board.

“Would we like to be further along?” Mr. Kostelnik asked. “You can probably say we’d like to be.”

But it is premature to judge the agency’s progress since it hasn’t completed its work, he said.

NASA is preparing two shuttles — Atlantis and Discovery — for flight.

Finding and fixing broken thermal-protection tiles during orbit are among the most difficult challenges remaining.

The agency is evaluating three alternatives to repair tiles, said Michael Greenfield, NASA’s associate deputy administrator for technical programs.

Depending on the size and shape of a hole, tiles could be plugged or covered, Mr. Greenfield said. Engineers also are working on a method to insert a material in holes that can be expanded to fill in a void behind a crack.

“They all look quite promising at this time,” he said.

NASA hopes to fly as many as two shuttle missions before the end of the year and is aiming for a period beginning Sept. 12 and ending Oct. 10.

The agency’s interest in resuming shuttle flights revolves around the International Space Station, a multinational work in progress. NASA must make 25 to 30 more shuttle flights to complete its construction, and has jettisoned plans to service the Hubble Space Telescope to bolster chances of meeting its goal.

Two weeks ago, President Bush outlined a plan to retire the shuttle fleet by 2010.

The agency still is grappling with the effect of the president’s policy proposal on the space station, Mr. Kostelnik said, but the station has an important role in the administration’s plan to conduct robotic missions to the moon by 2008 and human expeditions as early as 2015. Those are intended to prepare for the eventual manned exploration of Mars.

“The ISS is the first steppingstone for exploration,” Mr. Kostelnik said.

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