Even before the findings and recommendations of the Columbia accident investigation board are released, NASA has already identified modifications that could be made to the space shuttle's design.

The insulation foam on the external tank around the location of the orbiter attachment points would be redesigned, while studies will be carried out into ways to inspect - and possibly repair - damage to an orbiter's thermal protection system tiles and materials in orbit.

There are likely to be many improvements to ground-based photographic and radar monitoring of the vehicle in orbit and during launch, possibly with new cameras located on the orbiter itself. Changes to the trajectory during re-entry to minimise heating on the wings' leading edges and tiles are also possible.

Meanwhile, analysis by NASA of the last 2s burst of data transmitted from Columbia has reportedly indicated that the crew may have attempted to disengage the autopilot and fly the orbiter manually just before the break-up.

Source: Flight International