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Space Shuttle Columbia

NASA: Shuttle could fly in March

Launch would take place in daylight to give cameras clear view

By Dave Santucci

NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Readdy, middle and Associate Adsministrator for Safety and Mission Assurance Bryan O'Connor speak during a press conference Tuesday.
NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Readdy, left, and Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance Bryan O'Connor speak during a news conference Tuesday.

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(CNN) -- Setting an ambitious timeline for the shuttle's return to space, a top NASA official said Tuesday that the craft might fly again March 11.

Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, said the shuttle could be made to fly safely between March 11 and April 6.

Readdy said the expected launch would happen during daylight to give high-resolution cameras the best views of any problems during launch. During space shuttle Columbia's launch in January, one of the cameras that would have captured the best images of the craft's left wing was out of focus. The wing was struck by insulating foam 82 seconds into the flight, which investigators say allowed superheated gas to penetrate the craft during its re-entry February 1, ultimately tearing the ship apart and killing all seven astronauts aboard.

After a six-month investigation, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is expected to deliver its final report August 26. The expansive report is expected not only to detail the causes of Columbia's accident but also to offer recommendations on improving the space program.

The investigation board has made several recommendations, including improving launch imaging, in-orbit repair capability and telescope imaging of the shuttle while it is in flight.

"We are making excellent progress on the five recommendations that have come through so far," NASA Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory said.

Shuttle orientation

NASA has appointed an independent board of 27 people, called the Stafford-Covey Task Group, to ensure that the recommendations in the board's report are "followed to the letter," Gregory said.

That task group began work Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center with "Basic Shuttle 101" orientation for members who have not worked on the shuttle program.

Readdy said NASA plans to go beyond the recommendations made so far. The agency is considering eliminating foam from the region of the external tank that was damaged during Columbia's launch. The region, known as the bi-pod area, is where the orbiter's nose attaches to the external tank.

NASA would install heaters to replace the foam, designed to prevent ice from forming, Readdy said. He added that the changes identified so far would not stand in the way of a March launch.

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