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NASA falls short on safety plan for shuttle

Associated Press
Published June 28, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL - A panel overseeing NASA's resumption of shuttle flights concluded Monday that the space agency has failed to meet the toughest safety recommendations put in place after the Columbia disaster.

Despite exhaustive work and considerable progress over the past 21/2 years, NASA has been unable to eliminate the possibility of dangerous pieces of foam and ice breaking off the external fuel tank and striking the shuttle at liftoff, the return-to-flight task force said.

In addition, NASA still does not have a clear idea of all the potential threats from ice, and lacks a practical way to fix holes and other damage caused by launch debris, the group said.

It was not immediately clear if NASA would delay its planned July shuttle launch in light of the task force's assessment. In a statement after Monday's meeting, agency administrator Michael Griffin said that he welcomed different points of view and that he expected "a healthy debate" in this week's flight review by NASA.

Monday's findings came after a prolonged discussion by the 26-member task force marked by some dissent. It was the group's last public meeting, and the chairman said he would present a summary report to NASA before its leaders gather this week to discuss shuttle readiness and set a formal launch date for Discovery.

NASA has been aiming for a liftoff of Discovery as early as July 13 on the first mission since Columbia's destruction during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

Task force chairman Richard Covey, a former astronaut, stressed that the three recommendations debated Monday represented the most technically challenging of the 15 put forth by Columbia accident investigators as being essential for the resumption of shuttle flights.

The task force found in previous sessions that NASA has complied with the 12 other recommendations considered essential for the resumption of shuttle flights.

While NASA has come up with good techniques for inspecting the shuttle in orbit, it does not meet the intent of the Columbia investigators' recommendation for having the capability to make emergency repairs in space, the task force said. The space agency has also put off long-term improvements to the shuttle's thermal shielding because of the fleet's planned retirement in 2010, making full compliance with the recommendations impossible in some cases, members noted.

Covey was pressed by reporters whether he personally thought it was safe for NASA to launch Discovery in July. He declined to answer specifically but said that if he were younger and on flight status, he would have no concern about flying aboard Discovery.

[Last modified June 28, 2005, 01:47:08]

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