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Next Shuttle Flight Won't Meet March Launch Date

September 17, 2003|From Reuters

HOUSTON — The next space shuttle flight, designed to test repairs that might have saved the Columbia, will not make the March target set by NASA and may not occur before midsummer, a top spaceflight official said Tuesday.

The space agency plans to intensify its observation of the shuttle during future flights, training twice as many cameras on the orbiter during launch and developing a number of repair techniques that could be used by spacewalking astronauts.

But many of the safety measures are technologically challenging to develop, said Bill Parsons, the shuttle program manager.

"We need to take this slow and easy," he said.

Parsons said the next flight would not launch in March or April and that it was too soon to commit to May or June.

NASA had set a target launch date for March for the first space shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts Feb. 1.

Parsons and astronaut Jim Halsell, who heads NASA's return-to-flight activities, outlined some of the steps NASA was developing for the next mission. They include "fundamentally, about twice as many cameras" trained on the orbiter to look for signs of debris hitting the shuttle's brittle network of heat-resistant tiles and wing panels.

Cameras will even be mounted on the external fuel tank and the twin solid-fuel booster rockets, looking for debris hits.

It was a debris hit from foam peeling away from the shuttle's external fuel tank and striking Columbia's left wing during launch that doomed the astronaut crew 16 days later when the nation's oldest shuttle broke apart during reentry.

The next mission will fly to the international space station, where spacewalking astronauts can practice repairing damage and the space station crew can make more photographic observations.

Parsons said the Atlantis flight, which originally was supposed to deliver a new crew and supplies to the space station, would be dedicated entirely to testing the new safety measures.

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