Officials at the U.S. Space agency NASA suggest the space shuttle will not return to flight until next year. When it does, a second shuttle crew will be standing by on the ground to rescue its crew if necessary.
If the next space shuttle to fly encounters danger, the shuttle crew in line for the subsequent mission will be ready to rescue the first crew in orbit.
The NASA official overseeing the shuttle and International Space Station programs, Michael Kostelnik, says plans call for a troubled shuttle to seek safe haven at the station, where its crew could live until the second shuttle could be readied for launch to get them.
"It is our plan to put ourselves in a posture that the second vehicle would be able to launch and go to the International Space Station and pick up the first crew if we had a problem with the vehicle and could not bring it down," he said.
The rescue plan is part of a series of safety measures NASA is taking in the wake of the shuttle Columbia disaster one year ago.
Shuttle manager Bill Parsons says a rescue would take between 45 and 90 days to mount while the crew of the disabled shuttle lived aboard the station. The outpost has enough food, water, oxygen, and other supplies for a crew of seven to remain that long.
Mr. Parsons notes that the rescue mission would not take a lot of extra training for the second shuttle team since their normal plan would be to visit the station anyway.
"I don't believe that there is an awful lot of extra things we have to do for a rescue mission," he said. "There are some contingency plans that I think we need to put together and things we need to think about, but overall, it would be just going to the International Space Station, docking, picking up crew, making sure we had the appropriate hardware and different things that we needed to bring that crew on board, and then return safely."
NASA had hoped to resume shuttle flights by September or October. But Mr. Kostelnik suggests it may take until early 2005 to meet all the new flight safety guidelines recommended by the independent board of experts who investigated the Columbia accident.
Engineers are working out ways to prevent foam insulation from shedding off the shuttle's external fuel tank, like the piece that punched a hole in the front edge of Columbia's wing during launch. Mr. Parsons says they are making progress on ways to repair wing damage and insulating tiles in orbit, but have much more work to do on these and other safety modifications before shuttle flights resume.