SPACE CENTER, Houston - Taking a lesson from the Columbia disaster, NASA plans to embed high-tech sensors in the wings of the three remaining space shuttles to detect any blows from debris, an oversight panel said Thursday.
The sensors will determine whether the leading edges of the wings were hit, but not the degree of damage, said Joseph Cuzzupoli, a Kistler Aerospace Corp. vice president who is part of the return-to-flight task force.
The extent of damage would still have to be determined by an inspection in orbit, using an extension boom equipped with cameras and lasers.
"It's just a tool that helps us to know and gives us a feeling that something hit it," said Cuzzupoli, who worked on both the Apollo and shuttle programs for the former Rockwell International.
Inspecting the outside of an orbiting shuttle will be difficult, Cuzzupoli said, and knowing where debris struck will save time and reduce risk of damage.
The sensors have never been used on a shuttle. They would detect blows from debris during launch and later in flight as well, Cuzzupoli said.
Cuzzupoli and other members of the NASA-appointed task force charged with overseeing return-to-flight activities held their second public meeting on Thursday.
NASA's latest target for resuming shuttle flights is next fall.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined that the disaster was caused by a a piece of foam insulation that broke off the external fuel tank during liftoff last January and smashed into the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing.
No one had a clear idea of the severity of the damage before the spacecraft broke apart over Texas during re-entry on Feb. 1. All seven astronauts were killed.