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Launch Delays Cost NASA Extra $4 Million for Shuttle Oversight Board

CAPECANAVERAL - NASA will end up spending three times more than anticipated to payfor an independent review of the agency's response to recommendations made byColumbia accident investigators.

Theextra cost -- about $4 million -- is the result of significant delays inreturning NASA's shuttle fleet to service.

TheReturn To Flight Task Group, headed by former astronauts Thomas Stafford andDick Covey, will have its final meeting today in Washington. A summary of itsfinal report will be delivered Tuesday morning to NASA Administrator MikeGriffin. He will then decide whether NASA should proceed with plans to launchDiscovery in July on the first shuttle mission since the 2003 disaster.

Columbiaand its seven astronauts were lost after a 1.7-pound chunk of foam insulationbroke free from the shuttle's external tank 81 seconds after launch and blasteda 6- to 10-inch hole in a wing panel.

Thedamage went undetected during the 16-day flight. Hot gas blowtorched throughthe hole during atmospheric re-entry Feb. 1, 2003, and the shuttledisintegrated over Texas. There were no survivors.

NASA'sformer administrator, Sean O'Keefe, set up the Stafford-Covey group in July2003 just before the release of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board'sreport. Their job: provide the administrator with an outside assessment ofactions taken by NASA's shuttle program to implement the safety fixesrecommended by the accident board.

Atthe time, NASA expected to spend $2 million. But Dave Drachlis,spokesman for the Return To Flight Task Group, said that estimate was based onreturning the shuttles to flight by December 2003.

Thelaunch plans were pushed back repeatedly as NASA encountered technicaldifficulties while redesigning the external tank, developing an orbital inspectionboom and putting in place a means for astronauts to make emergency repairs inspace.

Now,task force operations are expected to cost $6 million, based on a return toflight in July. Drachlis said 90 percent of the moneyhad been spent by late May.

Included in the total: the cost of an office near JohnsonSpace Center in Houston; hourly wages and travel expenses for the 26 members ofthe panel and 12 staffers; periodic rental of facilities for public meetings;and information technology support.

Thegroup so far has held meetings in Brevard County, Houston, and Huntsville, Ala.Members also have visited NASA headquarters in Washington as well as contractorfactories in Texas, Louisiana and Utah.

Taskgroup members were paid at a rate equivalent to a federal government employeewho makes $116,519 a year.

Noneof the members worked full time, however. Instead, they filed the number ofhours worked and received an equivalent hourly rate: $55.83 an hour. Drachlis said board members averaged eight to 10 hours oftask group work per week.

Fiveboard members declined any pay, Drachlis said.

Todate, the independent oversight group already has approved work NASA has doneon 12 of 15 return to flight recommendations made bythe Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The 26-member panel today will gaugeNASA's work on the three that remain. Those recommendations involve:

  • Initiating a program to eliminate debris shedding from shuttle external tanks.

  • Initiating a program to increase the ability of shuttle orbiters to withstand minor debris damage.
  • Developing a capability to inspect shuttle tiles and wing panels in orbit and make emergency repairs if necessary.

Drachlis said the panel did not expect any"showstoppers" to crop up at the final meeting, which is the first ofseveral key events this week that could determine whether NASA can launchDiscovery between July 13 and 31 as planned.

AtKennedy Space Center on Wednesday and Thursday, NASA will conduct a traditionalflight readiness review for Discovery's test flight to the International SpaceStation. Barring any unresolved issues that could delay the launch, a firmlaunch date is expected to be announced at the end of the two-day conference.

IfNASA scraps plans for a July launch, the next opportunity will come during awindow from Sept. 9 to Sept. 24. 

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