Shuttle not likely to fly by spring, experts say
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- Even if NASA adopts only the minimal recommendations from an independent panel to return the space shuttle to service, experts say the fleet will likely remain grounded much longer than spring 2004, when the agency had hoped to resume flights.
That optimistic timeline had been offered by numerous NASA managers, who would like to resume shuttle flights to the international space station soon to send crews and components to the unfinished orbiting outpost.
But the corrective actions suggested by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board this week to prevent future shuttle disasters will likely put a damper on those plans, according to space experts.
"Maybe there is a some possibility to launch by the spring, but I don't think anyone seriously thinks that the launch will be that soon," said Norman Thagard, a former NASA astronaut and five-time shuttle flier.
"I think we're going to fly a year from now," echoed Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee and current editor of NASAWatch.com, an independent watchdog Web site.
Among dozens of long-term suggestions, which deal in large part with institutional changes to make the NASA bureaucracy more safety conscious, the CAIB report offered eight short-term recommendations before returning to flight, many of which concern engineering issues.
For example, the first two advise the agency to begin fixes that prevent foam from shedding from external fuel tanks during launch and strengthen external shuttle wing parts that might be struck by foam debris.
"My own gut feeling is they will have to have corrected one or the other problem before they can fly again," Thagard said.
One such foam chunk is thought to have struck the leading edge of Columbia during liftoff, creating a puncture that proved fatal as the orbiter reentered the atmosphere 16 days later.
Cowing noted that for such fixes, "there's some time involved. It's rather optimistic to get everything done to actually meet the recommendations and expect to fly in anything less than a year."
Despite such predictions, the CAIB chairman said he thought there is a chance the shuttle could return to service between six and nine months.
"None of the recommendations are particularly difficult and I don't see any reason why they couldn't resume flying in six to nine months from now," retired Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. told CNN's American Morning on Wednesday.
Regardless of the timeframe, NASA will probably need loads of money to adopt the reforms, even the basic return-to-flight ones.
"They are saying it's not going to be small change. We have to be prepared for the shocking numbers they are going to give us," said Catherine Buell, a former Boeing employee who worked on the international space station project.
Getting more federal money may be quite a challenge, considering that the U.S space agency has experienced dwindling budgets and political support in recent years, according to space experts.
Buell said that the Bush administration "has never been that supportive of human spaceflight."
And some congressional leaders have openly questioned the value of resuming shuttle flights at all, given the costs and risks.
"Congress will not help NASA fly sooner. Quite the contrary," Cowing said.
After Columbia broke apart with the loss of seven astronauts in February, NASA grounded the orbiter fleet, forcing the United States and its international partners to rely on smaller Russian Soyuz spacecraft to deliver cargo and crews to the space station.
NASA would like to return to flight primarily to resume work on the multibillion-dollar outpost. But the ambitious construction schedule, the CAIB cautioned, was a major reason for what put Columbia at risk in the first place.
With the White House and Congress pressuring NASA to reduce space station costs and construction delays, the agency felt compelled to adhere to a fixed shuttle flight schedule for station missions, which would affect non-station missions as well, the report said.
"This may have begun to influence program managers' view of how to achieve program directives," NASA chief Sean O'Keefe told reporters Wednesday.