WASHINGTON -- NASA officials are working to return the space shuttle to orbit as early as this fall, with plans to quickly correct any flaws in the system uncovered by the board now investigating the Columbia accident.
Top NASA officials said Friday they are instructing engineers to plan any changes needed to resume the space shuttle program "as soon as practicable" after the investigation board determines why space shuttle Columbia broke apart.
The accident on Feb. 1 destroyed the spacecraft, killed the seven astronauts on board, scattered debris across wide areas of Texas and Louisiana and forced NASA to ground the three remaining space shuttles.
The goal of a fall launch was set out by William F. Readdy, NASA's chief of space flight, in a memo to department heads.
In a meeting with reporters, Readdy said engineers were to review specific problems already being studied by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, including how foam insulation debris peeled off the shuttle's external fuel tank and smashed into the craft's left wing during launch.
A leading theory of the accident is that thermal protection tiles on the wing were damaged, allowing the superheated gas generated during re-entry to penetrate the wing and soften the metal structure.
The effort to resume the program will include a review of ways to inspect and repair damaged tiles while the shuttle is in orbit. While Columbia was still in space, a team of engineers analyzed films and concluded the foam debris incident had not caused enough damage to endanger the spacecraft. Some officials said that even if problems had been found, there was nothing that could have been done to fix the tiles.
'Elephant in the room'
Readdy's memo also called for a review of NASA policies that permit prelaunch waivers on some mission safety rules, and a look at methods used to identify in-flight safety problems. He also asked for a review of how safety issues are reported to top NASA management.
Before the investigators release their report, NASA's engineers will concentrate on problems that the board has already publicly identified, such as the insulation debris and possible broken tiles.
"That's the elephant in the room," said Readdy. "We can't ignore those."
Asked about NASA's plans, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, "The president is not the scientist who makes these determinations, but he will be guided by the judgment of the scientists at NASA who are in charge of making these judgments."
NASA's plans call for space shuttle Atlantis to return to space with a crew trained to add elements to the International Space Station and to rotate crew members aboard the station. The mission would be the 114th shuttle flight and would be commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins.
Three men now on the station, called the Expedition 6 crew, will be replaced 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 responded Friday to published reports that he declined an offer from another agency, apparently the Department of Defense, to take pictures of Columbia while the spacecraft was still in orbit.
Pressed by reporters, Readdy read from a statement which he said he had presented to the investigative board and to NASA's inspector general on Feb. 3.
Readdy said an unnamed NASA official told him that "an individual from another agency" offered to use "assets" to observe Columbia in orbit, presumably to determine if there was visible damage. The request, he was told, would have to be on an emergency or high priority basis.
Readdy said he told the official that the shuttle program office had already evaluated the risks from the launch debris and concluded there was no safety concern.
He said the space shuttle program was well aware of the capabilities of the other agency "and had concluded that the offer would not contribute to the analysis" of Columbia's problems.
He said he told the NASA official to accept the offer from the other agency on a "not to interfere" basis. Readdy said that meant the other agency could take the pictures as long as that effort did not interfere with the principal work of that agency.
"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 fully, Readdy said.
NASA reported that almost 34,000 pieces of Columbia had been collected from Texas and Louisiana and stored at the Kennedy Space Center. Almost 30,000 pieces have been identified and 1,163 pieces in have been arranged in an outline of the space shuttle now being assembled at a Kennedy hangar.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said about 20 percent of Columbia has been collected as 4,000 federal and state workers and volunteers continue to comb the woods in Texas and Louisiana for additional pieces. He said no debris has been collected west of the Lubbock, Texas, area, although investigators hope to recover debris sighted falling over California, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
On the Net
Columbia Accident Investigation Board: www.caib.us/