Tim Furniss/LONDON

Blame for the botched deployment of a Spartan free flyer during last November's STS87/Columbia flight has been placed firmly at the door of the spacecraft's crew.

Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla has come in for most blame, but the whole STS87 crew, led by commander Kevin Kregel, has been cited for failing to monitor and support their colleague because this had not been included in the training checklist. Poor communications with ground controllers and insufficient software also contributed, says NASA. Chawla first failed to activate the on-board clock on the Spartan, switching it from idle mode to activate its attitude control system before its release from the end of the remote manipulator system robot arm.

When the Spartan became unstable, the rookie astronaut then failed to recapture the craft because the snaring mechanism on the robot arm had been deployed prematurely and instead she nudged it further out of control. The craft was later captured by hand by two spacewalking astronauts.

The report on the incident accuses the crew of making the most serious error on a US manned spaceflight since Scott Carpenter's errant retrofire on the Mercury Atlas 7 in May 1962. That was described as "carelessness", while NASA calls the STS87 error "just an honest mistake".

The ramifications of the mistake, however, will need to be addressed before the International Space Station assembly missions begin a period of frenetic Shuttle activity in which there will be little margin for errors.

The 16-day Neurolab medical research mission, launched on 17 April as the STS90/Columbia, may be repeated this summer because of delays in the Space Shuttle International Space Station assembly flights this year.

Source: Flight International