Appointment of committee is in line with CAIB recommendations expected in August

NASA is appointing a Space Shuttle Return-to-Flight Oversight Committee of "seasoned veterans" to aid recovery of the programme. The decision is in line with recommendations expected to be made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) in August.

The external committee will be led by former astronaut Tom Stafford, a veteran of several NASA investigative committees, and will include Richard Covey, a former commander.

"When they say we can fly, that's when we will fly," says NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe.

The CAIB will recommend changes in how NASA operates the Space Shuttle and says the bipod area of the Space Shuttle external tank must be redesigned before another launch takes place. "We're going to tell [NASA] to fix foam shedding absolutely," says the CAIB.

It is almost certain that foam from this region hit the leading edge and underside of Columbia's left wing at T+81s, starting a chain of events that led to the loss of the craft and its seven crew during re-entry on 1 February. Foam from the bipod has hit the orbiter during at least seven previous launches.

"You won't see those bipods again on the Shuttle," says CAIB member Steve Turcotte. But NASA says it will be impossible to prevent the loss of some insulation from any part of the tank during launch.

O'Keefe says had the agency known Columbia was facing peril at the end of its mission, it would have attempted to save the crew, and sent Atlantis on a rescue mission.

He is also puzzled that despite the series of internal e-mails exchanged by lower level engineers about potential tile damage, none alerted high-ranking officials.

O'Keefe is concerned about the safety reporting system and the management structure and questions why the engineers held back, despite there being a confidential safety reporting system, set up after the Challenger accident in 1986.

Source: Flight International