NASA will meet all of the return to flight recommendations laid out by the Columbia accident investigators as the agency works to launch the Discovery space shuttle and complete the International Space Station (ISS), NASA officials said today.
The agency has already met five of the 15 recommendations set in a report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) which was released on this day one year ago. The remaining 10 recommendations are to be addressed by year's end.
"We think we have a process in hand to close the remaining 10 items by December," said William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, during a teleconference with reporters today. "We'll be driven by those milestones."
The CAIB report, released on Aug. 26, 2003, included the 15 recommendations specific for NASA's return to flight and called for an improvement in NASA's internal culture to prevent another disaster akin to the Feb. 1, 2003 loss of the seven astronauts aboard the Columbia shuttle.
"That report turned out to be a framework for our return to flight activities and beyond," Readdy said. "We found out what happened [to Columbia], we're fixing it, and we've shifted from planning to execution of those recommendations."
Return to flight
Since the Columbia accident and the CAIB report release, NASA engineers have been preparing the Discovery and Atlantis space shuttles for flight, incorporating a suite of new detection and safety systems into the orbiters and their ground operations.
"It's been a hard year," said Bill Parsons, NASA's space shuttle program manager. "We've made a significant progress in getting return to flight ready for next year."
Discovery is slated to be the next shuttle to fly, and is slated to carry the STS-114 mission into orbit between March 16 and April 18 of 2005, Readdy said.
The orbiter has entered its processing phase for the spring launch, but tests still remain for some equipment, including a sensor boom that will be used to scan the shuttle's underbelly for damage to its thermal protection system.
Discovery will carry a host of sensors along the leading edges of its wings to detect heat, acceleration and impact events during flight. In addition to ground and aircraft-mounted cameras, radar will also be used to monitor its launch. The technology was proven during the recent launch of NASA's MESSENGER probe to Mercury.
A pair of external tanks, modified to reduce the shedding of foam insulation believed to have punctured Columbia's left wing during launch and led to its destruction during reentry, should arrive at Kennedy Space Center for final checks by mid-November.
Parsons said his team will not succumb to deadline or schedule pressures, and will adhere to the vehicle milestones that will assure Discovery is ready for flight.
"This is a milestone-driven schedule," he said. "We will get to launch when we think the vehicle is ready...and we think that is in the spring timeframe."
Completing the ISS
NASA officials told reporters that three space shuttle flights are anticipated for 2005, the last of which is expected to jumpstarting construction on the ISS. An annual launch schedule of five shuttle flights a year is slated to begin in 2005 and run until the ISS reaches completion.
"As much as the shuttle guys are preparing to return to flight, we are preparing to return to station assembly," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's ISS program manager during a separate press conference today. "The CAIB report was a real benefit to us."
The space station plays a critical role in NASA's return to flight, with shuttle and ISS managers developing "safe haven" scenarios that would allow astronauts to use the orbital facility as a lifeboat should their shuttle suffer damage and be unable to reenter the Earth's atmosphere.
"If we had this contingency...it's not going to be the most comfortable environment," Gerstenmaier said, adding that should a damaged shuttle dock with the station, it could be used as a trash dump and disposed of like other ISS supply ships. "One of the things we're looking at is what we can sustain to have a larger crew on board."
The crew of Expedition 9, Michael Fincke and Gennady Padalka, is currently manning the space station. Their relief, Expedition 10's Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov, is due to launch on Oct. 9.
Gerstenmaier said the ISS, which has been staffed by station-keeping crews of two people since the Columbia accident, could see a return to a three-person complement as early as the second 2005 shuttle flight, though that remains to be determined. Similarly, ISS mission planners aren't yet sure how the Expedition 10 crew will return to Earth - either aboard a Soyuz or a space shuttle - next spring.
In the meantime, the grounding of the shuttle fleet following the Columbia accident has allowed station managers and astronauts to boost skills that will be vital for future space exploration missions. That includes some tricky repairs, including one of a U.S. space suit, that would have otherwise been handled on the ground if the shuttle was available.
"In terms of in-flight repair, this has been a tremendous opportunity for us," Gerstenmaier said. "We're doing things that we didn't think we could do and it's going to pay in big ways for the future of U.S. space exploration."