Officials at the U.S. space agency, NASA, say they want to resume space shuttle flights early next year. The NASA announcement comes just two weeks after a high-level investigation criticized NASA's management culture for contributing to the February 1 disaster when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart while returning to earth, killing all seven astronauts on board.
NASA's return to flight plan says the space agency will try to launch the space shuttle Atlantis on a mission to the International Space Station between March 11 and April 6, 2004.
NASA officials say the dates are for planning purposes only and their plans are safety driven and not schedule driven.
The document issued by NASA on Monday comes two weeks after the Columbia Accident Inquiry Board released its findings on what caused the Shuttle Columbia to break apart while re-entering earth's atmosphere on February 1.
The Board said the accident was caused by damage to Columbia's left wing caused by a piece of insulation that broke off during the shuttles launch. But the Board also blamed NASA's management culture for contributing to the accident, saying senior managers should have been made aware of warnings from engineers who had raised concerns about the insulation problem.
In response to the Board's findings, NASA engineers say they will stop using most foam insulation and install heaters to prevent ice formation around the shuttle's tanks. All launches will also take place during daylight hours to improve safety monitoring and cameras will be mounted both on the shuttle and on the International Space Station so that any damage to the shuttle can be detected before it returns to Earth.
NASA officials say however they are still evaluating many of the safety recommendations made by the Board and have made no final decision on several, including how to harden the shuttle's thermal protection system.