NASA Fails to Fully Meet Final Return to Flight Recommendations

With threeweeks left before NASA's next shuttle launch window opens, the space agency hasstill not yet met the full letter of recommendations made by Columbia accidentinvestigators, an independent group overseeing the return to flight effort saidMonday.

TheStafford Covey Return to Flight Task Group, led by former astronauts ThomasStafford and Richard Covey, said NASA has only partially fulfilled the finalthree recommendations it pledged to meet before resuming space shuttle flights.

It is nowup to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to decide whether the space shuttleDiscovery, the first orbiter to fly since the Columbia tragedy, will launch next monthas planned.

In astatement released just after the task group's announcement, Griffin said theindependent panel had performed a "valuable public service."

"As anengineer, I know that a vigorous discussion of these complex issues can make ussmarter," Griffin said in the statement. "Ianticipate, and expect, a healthy debate in our upcoming Flight ReadinessReview for the Space Shuttle Return to Flight mission, STS-114."

Sittingatop Launch Pad 39B at KSC, Discovery is slated to launch its STS-114 astronautcrew spaceward no earlier than July 13. Shuttle program and mission managersare expected to meet between June 29 and 30 for a flight readiness reviewmeeting at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

CAIB Recommendations

"They havea sound plan to go forward, to finish up their analysis and hopefully resolveall of their open issues," said Joseph Cuzzopoli, technology panel leader,during the press conference at NASA's Washington, D.C.headquarters.

Orbiter hardening, external tank debris mitigation and in-flight repair methods rounded out the last three of 15 recommendations from Columbia investigators to be met before NASA launches its next shuttle flight.

While NASAhas made great strides in strengthening its orbiter fleet and minimizingharmful debris such as foam and ice - efforts which the task group conceded - it didnot meet the full intent of Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), thetask group members said. The task group also accepted that while the fiverepair methods devised by NASA to orbiter damage in-flight could be used in acontingency situation, they are not far enough along to meet the CAIBrecommendations.

"All ofthese options show promise for future flights, but we didn't feel they weretested and vetted enough to be called a capability," said James Adamson,operations lead for the task group. "Our hats are off to NASA in the tremendouseffort they put forth on a system that was never intended to be wasa tough job."

Task groupmembers will deliver their findings in an executive summary to Griffin Tuesday,Covey told reporters during the press conference.

"We'regoing to continue writing our final report and hope to get that done as soon aswe can," Covey said, adding that despite the task group's findings, he wouldnot have a concern about flying aboard Discovery's next flight.

Discovery'sspaceflight is the first of two scheduled test missions to verify new hardwareand procedures developed to increase shuttle safety. It is also expected toferry much-needed supplies, spare parts and science equipment to theInternational Space Station (ISS), which has depended on Russian spacecraft forcargo deliveries and crew changes since the Columbia accident.

NASAgrounded its three remaining space shuttles following the loss of Columbia andits STS-107 astronaut crew on Feb. 1, 2003. The orbiter broke apart over Texaswhile reentering the Earth's atmosphere. Investigators later found that wingdamage, caused by external tank foam debris at launch, caused the accident.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.