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Too Early to Know When Space Shuttle Fleet Can Fly Again, Say Experts - 2004-01-22

An independent oversight panel says the U.S. space agency NASA is making substantial, but uneven progress in getting its space shuttle fleet back to orbit. NASA's ability to fly a shuttle this year remains in question.

NASA grounded the three remaining shuttles when the orbiter Columbia disintegrated upon its return from a mission one year ago. In August, an investigation board found that the mishap was caused by a piece of foam insulation that flew off Columbia's external tank during launch and made a hole in its left wing. The board recommended 15 steps NASA should take to make shuttles safer.

Now, an oversight committee created to assess NASA's compliance, says it is making headway, but is further ahead on some issues than others.

The co-chair of the panel, former astronaut Richard Covey, says "The agency has made solid progress toward addressing each and every one of the return-to-flight recommendations, but [there is] still a great deal of work to be done. At the same time, we haven't seen anything that says they can't get this done within a reasonable period of time to return to flight."

NASA has said it aims to get a shuttle into orbit by September or October, but Mr. Covey's oversight panel says it is still much too soon to predict the timing of the next flight.

"Right now, from what we've seen, there are some things that don't support that target date," he said. "NASA has reported those to us, but they are still working on them within the resources that they have to be able to support that planning window."

The oversight panel was established by NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe. It notes that NASA has made progress on the more basic technical recommendations of the accident investigators, such as developing methods to repair a shuttle's protective skin in orbit. But it says the agency has much more work to do to address recommendations that deal with management of shuttle flights and maintenance.

The accident investigators last year had criticized NASA management. They said the cause of the Columbia disaster was as much poor management and safety culture as it was the foam that broke through the shuttle's wing. They called on NASA to establish an independent division of engineers to assess its safety practices. But according to Mr. Covey's oversight group, a detailed plan for this is still a long way off.

Under President Bush's recent space exploration proposals, the shuttle will be retired in 2010 when the United States ends its participation in the international space station. Mr. Bush ordered NASA to develop a new spacecraft to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. Richard Covey says Mr. Bush's plan does not affect NASA's immediate effort to improve shuttle safety.

And what would his team do if NASA tries to fly a shuttle without implementing all safety recommendations as the Columbia accident investigators intended?

"I don't think there will be any problem at all in telling the administrator that the intent hadn't been met, if that's the case," he said.