Independent Task Group Stands Down, Members Criticize NASA's Return to Flight Work

The independent task groupresponsible for watching over NASA's efforts to launch the STS-114 missionaboard Discovery, the first space shuttle to fly since the Columbiadisaster, is standing down, with some of its members criticizing the space agency's return to flight work.

With the release today of its220-page final report to NASA, the Stafford-Covey Task Group will no longeroversee the space agency's shuttle safety work, the group's leaders, veteranastronauts Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey, told reporters during a Wednesdayteleconference. [The final report is available at the task group's website here.]

Some personalobservations by task group members - included as an annex to the final reportfor NASA chief Michael Griffin - criticized NASA's return to flight efforts asdisappointing.

"It is difficult to be objectivebased on hindsight, but it appears to us that lessons that should havebeen learned have not been," a group of seven task group members wrote."Perhaps we expected or hoped for too much."

NASA still has one more test flight- STS-121aboard Atlantis - before achieving its return to flight goals, but shuttleofficials have pledgednot to launch another orbiter until resolving external tank foam debris sheddingissues that cropped up during liftoff of Discovery's STS-114 mission.

"The agency ought to have, and oughtto be able, to go out and solve these problems themselves without a lot ofexternal oversight," Covey said, adding that the task group has always been anadvisory body only, not an oversight board.

NASA spent more than two years and$1.4 billion to return its shuttle fleet safely to flight following the loss ofColumbia and its seven STS-107 astronauts in 2003. The Stafford-Covey TaskGroup watched over those efforts, ultimately passing NASA on 12 of the 15recommendations which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) deemedshould be addressed before Discovery's launch. In all, CAIB members made 29recommendations for NASA's consideration.

The Columbia orbiter broke apart,its crew killed, as the shuttle reentered the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1,2003. CAIB investigators later pinned the physical cause of the disaster on asuitcase-sized chunk of foam that fell from Columbia's external tank at launchand pierced the heat shield lining its left wing leading edge. The resulting damageleft the orbiter and its crew vulnerable to the searing heat of reentry.

After successfully launchingDiscovery and its STS-114 astronaut crew into orbit on July 26, shuttle andmission managers were disappointed to find that a nearly 1-pound piece of foamhad fallenfrom the spacecraft's external tank, though it did not strike the orbiter. The1-pound piece of foam separated from a protective ramp that shields tankelectrical and plumbing lines from air stresses during launch, and was thoughtto be safe by engineers and shuttle managers.

Several other debris chunks weredeemed to large to be safe, NASA officials said. Tank engineers had previously anticipated thelargest debris sources to be about the size of a marshmallowand weigh about one-tenthof a pound.

"The hard fact of the matter is thatthe external tank will always shed debris, perhaps even pieces large enough todo critical damage to the orbiter," the task group's final report stated.

Eliminating critical foam debrisduring launch was one of the threerecommendations NASA failed to accomplish in the eyes of the task group.The agency did not fully meet recommendations to harden its orbiter fleetagainst damage or develop mature repair methods that could be relied upon tofix shuttle heat shields in orbit, the task group found.

However, Discovery's crew did testsome basic repair methods during their flight - including two methodsto repair damaged heat-resistant tiles and panels as part of a spacewalk. STS-114mission specialist Stephen Robinson also performed the first in-flight repairof a shuttle's heat shield when he removed two filler strips jutting frombetween the orbiter's belly-mounted tiles.

Those successes are a key example ofNASA's hard work to increase shuttle flight safety, Covey said.

"You only have to look at how muchwe were able to determine on what happened on that flight," Covey said ofDiscovery's STS-114 mission. "For the first time ever, the thermal protectionsystem was basically certified on orbit. It took out a lot of the questionsthat we had before the Columbia accident."

Personal opinions

In addition to delivering their finalreport, some of the 26 members of the Stafford-Covey Task Group includedpersonal observations - not official task group findings -of NASA's progressearmarked for the agency's top administrator Michael Griffin.

"We included them in the reportbecause the [NASA] administrator asked that they be included...in an annex,"Covey said, adding that neither he nor Stafford would comment on the opinions.

In one observation, seven task groupmembers took issue with portions of the space agency's return to flight effort,citing that - among other aspects - NASA constantly set launch targets a fewmonths out which prevented engineers from taking full advantage of a two-yearstand down period.

Decisions to develop certain tilerepair methods, the orbiter inspection boom and set flight manifests wereaffected due to the unrealistic launch targets, the task members stated.

"From our vantage point, the processfor selecting a launch date was flawed, if indeed there was a process," wrote thegroup, which consisted of a former directorof the congressional budget office, a veteran aerospace engineer, a formershuttle astronaut, former under secretary of the U.S. Navy, two professors anda nuclear engineer.

While Covey said personalobservations cannot be applied to the task group as a whole, he did add thatNASA may have hindered its own return to flight work by lunging headfirst intoall of the CAIB recommendations, rather than prioritizing the items into afocused structure.

"The fact that the agency spent twoyears to completely meet the recommendations of the CAIB was a challenge tothem, and one that may have affected their return to flight differently if theyhad prioritized rather than set a blanket 'We're going to do them all,'" Coveysaid.

Last week, NASA officials saidit is unlikely that they will be able to launch Atlantis during September,though another opportunity will open in November. An update on NASA's foamdebris analysis is expected Monday.

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