Despite some delays, NASA is still hoping to launch its first shuttle flight in two years this May and has drawn plans to protect the public from danger when that orbiter comes back to Earth, shuttle program officials said Tuesday.
"For the first time, NASA managers will have the tools and the rules to factor in public safety to flight policy," said Bryan O'Conner, NASA chief of safety and mission assurance, during teleconference with reporters.
In the event of an off-nominal reentry, such as minor damage to an orbiter or the loss of flight control redundancy, a shuttle could be redirected to back-up landing strips at Edwards Air Force Base in California or in White Sands, New Mexico, O'Conner said.
The new rules are part of a 288-page report released Tuesday that documents the agency's progress in returning its space shuttles to flight status.
NASA has addressed almost half of the 15 recommendations that Columbia accident investigators said should be met before the next shuttle launch, though eight still remain open. An independent task force - led by former astronauts Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey - in charge of evaluating NASA's return-to-flight progress is expected to review those eight issues on March 31.
"Hopefully, some or all of those will be closed then," said Michael Kostelnik, NASA's deputy associate administrator for the shuttle and International Space Station programs. "[But] we're clearly in a position to slip in our schedule as we need to meet our goals."
NASA's three remaining space shuttles have been grounded since the Columbia orbiter broke up during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its seven-astronaut crew. Debris from the orbiter rained down over Texas and Louisiana during the accident. Since then, NASA has spent the last two years working to enhance shuttle safety and is currently targeting May 15 for the launch of its first return-to-flight shuttle, the STS-114 mission aboard Discovery.
Recent delays in orbiter processing could push further into Discovery's current launch window, which closes on June 3.
Last week, shuttle officials delayed Discovery's March 18 rollover from its hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) due to the need for additional wiring work after engineers found evidence of chafing in the wiring of the Endeavour orbiter. While the delay has eaten away at a five-day reserve for orbiter processing, the May 15 launch date is still the current target, shuttle officials said.
"Right now is not the right time for the decision of whether or not we'll make [May] 15th or not," said Bill Parsons, NASA's space shuttle program manager, during the briefing. "It's obvious that we have milestones to achieve."
Parsons said that as of today, Discovery is scheduled for VAB rollover on March 28 and, seven days later, should rollout to its launch pad. A vital tanking test of the orbiter's external tank is currently set for mid-April.