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Panel: Shuttle could launch by May

The task force overseeing NASA's return to flight says Discovery is on track for a late spring launch.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Programs
Space Exploration
Kennedy Space Center

(CNN) -- As the nation remembers the space shuttle Columbia disaster Tuesday, the independent blue ribbon panel overseeing NASA's return to space shuttle flight says the agency is on track for a launch, perhaps as early as May or June.

Richard Covey, former astronaut and co-chairman of the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group, said the space agency still has a way to go toward meeting the requirements necessary to return the space shuttle fleet to service.

But all in all he indicated NASA's progress toward a late spring launch for the shuttle Discovery has his astronaut instincts kicking into gear.

"Oh, yeah, I'd fly in a heartbeat," Covey told reporters on a conference call to discuss the task group's third interim report on the status of the agency's efforts to complete the requirements laid down last year by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The shuttle fleet has been grounded since the Columbia broke apart over Texas on landing approach to Florida's Kennedy Space Center on February 1, 2003.

Seven astronauts, mission specialist David Brown, commander Rick Husband, mission specialist Laurel Clark, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist Michael Anderson, pilot William McCool, and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon died aboard Columbia.

In August 2003, the investigation board concluded that insulating foam flew off the shuttle's external fuel tank during liftoff, striking and cracking a panel on the orbiter's wing.

When the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere, searing hot gases seeped into the wing and incinerated the spacecraft.

Developing effective repair techniques to fix just that type of damage to an orbiter continues to be the primary problem vexing NASA as it works toward the return-to-flight launch.

"There are no show stoppers that we've seen out there," Covey said. "The issue that may come up is the degree to which feasible repair techniques are available on this mission."

The underside of a space shuttle is covered with insulating tiles, and the edges of the wings are clad with reinforced carbon-carbon panels. They make up the thermal protection system, or TPS, designed to protect the shuttle during the heat of re-entry.

Before the Columbia accident, astronauts had no way to inspect for and repair damage to the TPS in space.

Development of an effective TPS inspection and repair capability was one of 15 official recommendations the investigation board laid out for NASA to complete before returning the shuttle fleet to service.

Engineers have been developing and testing such techniques, but mission managers admit their plan may well need to be modified after in-orbit testing before it can be officially certified.

That may be good enough for the task group, Covey said.

He said improvements to the design and processing of the external fuel tank and the availability of the international space station as a safe haven for astronauts in the event of an emergency are mitigating factors that may well sway the task group to recommend NASA to go forward with a launch this spring.

"Is there something else that is going to occur in a time frame that makes sense that we would wait to fly for?" Covey said.

The Columbia crew: (left to right) Brown, Husband, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, McCool, and Ramon.

"Or do we say, 'This is what we have at this point,' and move on, and we go fly, and we continue the program to develop repair capabilities down the line."

Covey said his group believes the investigation board "would probably be happy with that approach."

"And that's what we want to see -- how far did they get, what are they going to have on this flight, and weigh that against the [board's] recommendation," he said.

Other recommendations by the investigation board included:

  • Modifications to external fuel tanks to reduce the shedding of "critical debris sources," like the foam that hit Columbia.
  • Improvement of "ascent imagery" so that engineers would have better images of an orbiter on liftoff, and even in space, to inspect it for damage.
  • Overhaul of NASA's "culture," which the board felt had fostered a work environment in which lower and mid-level staff members were afraid to speak up about safety concerns, fearing a negative response from managers.
  • So far, the task group has closed out eight of the 15 recommendations. Covey indicated NASA has made substantial progress toward meeting the other seven.

    The task group intends to meet again in March, and probably will issue its final report soon after.

    Under its charter, it will notify the NASA administrator that the space agency has met all the investigation board requirements at least a month before the return-to-flight shuttle launch.

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