UPDATE: Shuttle Oversight Group to Say All But 3 Return to Flight Requirements Met

UPDATE: Story first posted June 8, 2005 at 8:50 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON --TheStafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group announced Wednesday that it has closedout all but three of the 15 recommendations NASA must complete before it canlaunch the Space Shuttle Discovery in July.

Thegroup plans to meet again toward the end of June, either face-to-face or viateleconference, to close out the remaining items related to tank debris,orbiter hardening and tile repair.

Thetask force group, led by veteran astronauts Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey,was established in the wake of the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbiaaccident to monitor NASA's compliance with the recommendations of the ColumbiaAccident Investigation Board (CAIB). The CAIB released 29 findings andrecommendations for NASA, 15 of which needed to be addressed before returningthe shuttle fleet to flight status.

Coveytold reporters in HoustonTuesday that the task group has closed out five additional recommendationssince its last meeting. Those items had mainly to do with management issues andsteps NASA has taken to more closely observe the shuttle during its launch andascent.

Amongthe three remaining recommendations that Stafford-Covey must still close out,Covey and other members of the task group said they saw no show-stoppers thatshould interfere with return to flight.

Coveysaid the task group has additional analysis to do on changes NASA has made toprevent the shuttle's external tank from shedding potentially lethal debrissuch as insulating foam and ice during launch. The group must also performadditional analysis to evaluate changes NASA has made to harden the shuttleorbiter against debris damage and determine whether the fixes were sufficientto comply with the CAIB recommendations. Covey said the group has nearly allthe data in hand it needs to reach a judgment and expects to be able to do soin time for a flight readiness review NASA has tentatively scheduled for June29 and 30.

Theonly other remaining open item relates to orbiter inspection and repair. TheCAIB said NASA must have a "practicable" solution for repairing"the widest possible range of damage". The ambiguity of the wordingrecommendation has been a source of ongoing debate among Stafford-Covey taskgroup members. Jim Adamson, chairman of the group's operations panel, saiduntil that debate is resolved the group will not be able to determine whetheror not NASA is in full compliance with that particular CAIB recommendation.

Eitherway, NASA has made clear it intends to resume shuttle flights with the repaircapabilities it has in hand without knowing for sure whether they would work inan emergency.

Atpresent, Discovery is being fitted with a new external tank, and the spaceshipshould be back at the launch pad within a week. Concerns over the potentialdanger of ice debris from the original external tank led mission managers tocall for the refit, drawing out the shuttle's launch to no earlier than July13.

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