Agency confident despite admission that some recommendations will not be met in time

NASA will be unable to comply with some of the main recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) for a long time, officials admit. Nonetheless, the agency is increasingly confident the Space Shuttle can return to flight in March or April next year.

"We have made significant progress across the board in all the items that we think are required for return to flight," says Wayne Hale, Space Shuttle deputy programme manager. Eliminating significant debris shedding from the external tank remains the "real restraint".

NASA's goal is to ensure that no piece of foam heavier than 0.09kg (0.04lb) is shed by the tank, but it will be impossible to avoid the orbiter being hit by small pieces of ice from the external tank during launch, officials admit.

Several other return-to-flight recommendations seen as "ultimate objectives" by the CAIB may not be possible, including on-orbit repairs on a solo flight not attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Standalone repairs are a long way off, says Hales.

NASA still aims to fly the STS 114 Discovery mission between 6 March and 18 April next year. Progress has been made in testing methods of repairing damaged reinforced carbon-carbon panels in orbit, and designing a camera-equipped boom for the orbiter's robot arm, which will allow inspections and aid repairs while attached to the ISS.

Work still to be accomplished includes refurbishment of the rudder speedbrakes on the orbiters; adding high-resolution cameras to enhance ascent imagery; and developing a flight plan for the STS 300 emergency rescue mission, for which a second Shuttle will be on standby.



Source: Flight International