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US Space Agency Says Shuttle Repair Worries Remain

The U.S. space agency, NASA, says work continues on safety improvements on the space shuttle design in anticipation of the shuttle's return to flight in 2005. Agency officials concede that they have yet to determine whether the shuttle crew could fix the kind of damage that contributed to the loss of the shuttle Columbia in February 2003.

Less than six months before NASA wants to resume space shuttle missions, space agency officials still don't know whether spacewalking astronauts could repair the kind of damage that led to the fiery destruction of the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003. However, NASA officials say they have made significant progress on addressing many of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's safety recommendations.

Space shuttle program manager Bill Parsons is confident the shuttle Discovery will meet its scheduled launch in May 2005. "Right now I think we have a very, very strong chance of making that opening window in the May timeframe, which is around May 14, 15. And if not then, we have an even better chance to make it before the window closes on June three. So I feel very comfortable that we're working towards that and that we have some flexibility in that at this particular time," he said.

NASA engineers and contractors are working on a series of improvements to the space shuttle design to prevent the kind of damage that doomed the Columbia. The space craft's left wing was damaged during liftoff, exposing the vehicle to the hot atmospheric gases on re-entry.

One improvement that scientists are working on is a sensor arm with a camera that will allow mission control personnel on the ground to inspect the shuttle while it is in orbit. Additionally, engineers are testing tile repair strategies that would enable astronauts to patch damaged areas while in space.

Wayne Hale, deputy space shuttle program manager, says NASA is spending a lot of money and a lot of time on coming up with viable tile and reinforced carbon composite repair kits. "We think an important part of the process is to see how this stuff reacts when you actually go out in the vacuum of space and zero gravity and apply it to a test surface," he said. "That's why we're doing the detailed test objectives on the first two flights. And we think that if we're ever going to have a certified technique those will be absolutely critical - that data and how those test samples turn out - will be absolutely critical to proving that we have a good repair technique."

Mr. Hale says NASA has also improved management training for the space shuttle program to encourage people to speak up and air their concerns. The Columbia accident investigators criticized senior management for ignoring lower level employees' safety concerns.

NASA hopes to have all of the safety improvements and procedure changes in place 60 days prior to launch, although that is not fixed in stone.

Space shuttle program manager Bill Parsons says no shuttle launch can be completely risk-free, but he is confident that NASA's work over the past year has made the shuttle launch safer than it was in 2003. He says the shuttle's return to flight will help test the improvements. "I think what we need to do is just understand that there's some risk involved in this and the next two flights are going to be verification flights for us to get a good look at this."

NASA's progress on a return to flight and the lingering repair concerns are detailed in a report issued Monday. NASA's Return to Flight Task Group will meet on December 16 to assess the agency's progress.