SPACE CENTER, Houston - A new NASA safety rule restricting shuttle launches to daylight hours will lead to more and longer flight delays and, unless the space agency is strong enough to resist, deadline pressures similar to those that contributed to the Columbia disaster, officials warned Wednesday.
More than half of any given calendar year will be blacked out for launches under the new guideline, sometimes for months at a time.
The new rule, prompted by the Columbia disaster, was dictated by the need to photograph each shuttle at liftoff in order to document damage from debris and to check the external fuel tank for missing foam insulation.
John Shannon, manager of shuttle flight operations and integration, said everyone inside the space agency will have to resist the urge to meet what few launch dates might be available in any given period.
"We have to guard against that," Shannon said. "Everybody who's worked here for a long time looks at that thing (blackout chart) and says, "Wow, we need to get something going here and here and here.' And you say, "No, we are not going to do that. That is not the way we're going to operate.' "
For the next launch, dozens of additional cameras will be positioned throughout the launch area. Extra cameras will be installed on the shuttle to document its eight-minute ride to orbit and the astronauts will use a digital camera to photograph the empty fuel tank as it falls away.
Daylight will be required not only at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, but also far out over the Atlantic so the fuel tank is visible when it tumbles away.
Greg Oliver, the chief of the shuttle ascent and descent dynamics branch, said these daylight launch restrictions will reduce the number of launch opportunities by more than half. And that does not take into account the usual delays caused by weather, meteor showers and other factors.
With the daylight restrictions, NASA will have about a month, from mid May to mid June next year, to launch Atlantis on the next shuttle flight provided it fulfills redesigns and requirements outlined by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.