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Panel Cites Flaws, but Backs July Launch

An advisory group says NASA has failed to make improvements in three critical areas after Columbia. Still, it says Discovery is safe to fly.

June 28, 2005|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

NASA has failed to fulfill the three most critical criteria for improving shuttle safety recommended by the board that investigated the Columbia shuttle accident, an independent advisory group said Monday. But the agency has made good progress, the panel said, so there is no reason to delay the scheduled July 13 launch of Discovery.

Despite 2 1/2 years of intense effort, the space agency has not eliminated the risk of debris striking the shuttle during liftoff or sufficiently strengthened the orbiter to resist such impacts, the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group said. NASA also has failed, so far, to develop the ability to repair such damage in orbit, the group said.

Nonetheless, the panel feels that Discovery "is a safe vehicle to fly," Col. James C. Adamson, a task group member, said in a news conference Monday.

Former astronaut and panel co-chairman Col. Richard O. Covey added, "I would not have any concern about flying on the vehicle."

The Stafford-Covey task group was organized to independently analyze how effectively NASA was responding to the recommendations of the Columbia investigation board.

In its final public meeting Monday in Washington, the task group considered the three most crucial recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The Stafford-Covey panel concluded that NASA had made major progress in the two areas concerning debris hazards, but much less toward the development of a repair capability. But the achievements in preventing damage from debris, they added, reduced the need to quickly develop in-flight repair capability.

The group is now writing its final report and will present it to NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin today in time for a key meeting Wednesday and Thursday to officially determine if the flight will occur in July.

NASA engineers "may not have fully met the intent of [the investigation board], but they have made significant progress toward reducing the likelihood that bad things will happen," said panelist Joseph Cuzzupoli of Kistler Aerospace Corp.

The shuttle Columbia was doomed when a large chunk of insulating foam fell off the external fuel tank during its launch in January 2003, damaging the reinforced carbon-carbon heat shield on its wing.

During reentry on Feb. 1, the damaged area provided an entryway for hot gases, which caused the shuttle to explode over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The agency has made major improvements in preventing foam from breaking off the external fuel tank, Cuzzupoli said, but "the ice story is still coming together."

Concern over ice was the main reason NASA pushed back the planned launch of Discovery from May to July. That delay allowed the agency to make additional improvements in minimizing ice damage, Adamson said. In particular, modifications were made to prevent ice from building up on the external fuel lines, especially by installing heaters on the bellows that allow the lines to expand and contract.

Further delays, however, would provide little or no additional benefit in terms of safety, panelists said.

The engineers have also fixed four of the five areas on the shuttle where debris might damage the tiles that deflect heat on reentry, Cuzzupoli said. The fifth area, around the main landing gear doors, will be fixed in the future, but the panelists do not consider it much of a threat.

"If we solve debris liberation and harden the orbiter, we don't have to worry so much about repair capability," Cuzzupoli added.

He said the agency made "a yeoman's effort" in coming up with potential repair methods, two of which will be tested during the Discovery mission. But all of them must be considered contingency options rather than tested and proven capabilities, Cuzzupoli added.

The task group had previously addressed 12 other major recommendations from the investigation board and concluded that all had been satisfactorily met.

"The task group doesn't make a determination about whether this is the right time to go fly," Covey said. Rather, it provides information that will help NASA make the decision.

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