HOUSTON - The Columbia accident investigators said Wednesday they might recommend NASA stage a demonstration space shuttle flight before resuming full-scale missions.
Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said the possibility of such a test flight appears unlikely. But he said the idea is being considered by the panel and might be among its return-to-flight recommendations "if we think that's what it takes" to safely resume missions.
Gehman did not elaborate on what a demonstration flight might entail. But Columbia's first four flights in 1981 and 1982 were considered test flights. Each time, only two pilots were aboard, instead of the full crew of five to seven, and they had ejection seats.
NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said the board has not asked the space agency to look into a demonstration flight. NASA will await the board's recommendations before putting together return-to-flight plans, he said.
The recommendations almost certainly will include the need to re-evaluate shuttle inspections and closer oversight by NASA, whose role has dwindled dramatically over the past several years, the board noted.
Columbia was on its 28th flight when it shattered over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts.
The board also is considering whether some or all of the shuttle components should be recertified for another 20 years of flight. In the military, recertification of aging airplane parts can be a long, extensive process.
Gehman and others on the 13-member board will start moving to Washington next week and begin writing their final report, expected to be completed by the end of July. He expects a "very, very thick report," extending all the way back to when NASA decided to build space shuttles.
Details of what caused the accident will take up only a limited portion of the "very thick" and "multilayered" final report. Board members said much attention will be given to fundamental safety practices by NASA and contractors such as the United Space Alliance and others. USA is a partnership of the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. that runs day-to-day shuttle operations for NASA.
"It's intended to be the baseline for a very serious public policy debate on the future of safety in the shuttle program and manned space flight," Gehman said.
- Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.