NASA starts planning for returning space shuttle to orbit by fall

Friday, March 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ NASA is making plans to return the space shuttle to orbit as early has this fall and has instructed engineers to be prepared to make any ``corrective actions'' recommended by the board now investigating the Columbia tragedy.

William F. Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, issued a memo this week instructing agency officials to organize a team to plan for quickly making changes in the space shuttle _ or its operations _ so that the craft would be quickly ready to fly.

``The team will prepare for a safe return to flight as soon as practicable,'' the March 12 memo said. ``As a goal, the SSP (Space Shuttle Program) shall plan for corrective actions and reviews which support a launch opportunity as early as the fall of 2003.''

Readdy said that NASA will be guided by the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which is studying the factors involved in the Feb. 1 destruction of Columbia in which the seven crew members perished.

The space shuttle disintegrated while returning to Earth, scattering debris across wide areas of Texas and Louisiana.

The memo instructed engineers to review specific problems that already are being investigation by the CAIB. These issues include foam insulation that peeled off the shuttle's external fuel tank and smashed into the craft's left wing and may have damaged the thermal protection tiles on that wing.

The return-to-flight team also is to review ways to inspect and repair damaged tiles while the shuttle is in orbit. Other issues to be studied are how the spacecraft is prepared for orbit, the policies on granting safety waivers and the methods used to identify in-flight safety problems and how those issues are relayed to top NASA management.

Readdy said NASA will not ``prejudge'' the conclusions of the accident review board, but will concentrate efforts on problems that the board has already publicly discussed, such as the foam insulation debris and possible broken tiles on the wing.

``That's the elephant in the room,'' said Readdy. ``We can't ignore those.''

NASA's plans call for the first mission to be directed toward continuing the construction of the International Space Station. The mission also would be used to rotate crew members now in the station.

Three crew members now on the station, Expedition 6, will be replaced by next month by two crew members to be flown to the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The Expedition 6 crew will return to Earth on a Soyuz now docked at the station.

Readdy also explained how he came to turn down an offer from the Department of Defense to take pictures of Columbia while the spacecraft was in orbit.

NASA engineers knew that foam insulation had smashed Columbia's left wing during its Jan. 16 launch, but an evaluation had concluded that the incident represented no risk to the spacecraft or the crew and it was expected the craft could land safely.

Readdy said that someone ``from another agency'' had offered to use ``assets'', presumably high resolution cameras on spy satellites, to examine the space shuttle. But Readdy said he turned down the offer because NASA engineers had already concluded there were no safety issues involved.

``This was a routine offer for support using a national asset,'' said Readdy. He said he turned it down because he knew the capabilities of the ``asset'' and did not think it would add to the understanding of any possible damage to Columbia.

``If I thought for a second that there was anything that would be added to the discussion, that safety of flight issues were involved, I would not have hesitated'' to accept the offer, Readdy said.

Readdy said he knew about the capabilities of the ``assets'' and concluded that the pictures would not be beneficial to NASA.

``In my judgment, I didn't think that would have added to the (engineering) discussion,'' he said.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said that such judgments are among the issues now being considered by the investigative panel.