Return to Flight on Track Despite Setbacks

NASA is making progress in its return to flight efforts, despite suffering setbacks from a recent rash of hurricanes that have pummeled the nation's space coast, according to the task force overseeing the agency's work.

In a teleconference with reporters today, the joint heads of the Stafford-Covey Task Force, led by veteran astronaut Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey, said NASA will meet all 10 of the remaining recommendations by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) by December.

But the already tight schedule has been made more so due to the recent storms.

"There was at least one full week's schedule of lost work," Stafford said. "They have not been able to completely assess the damage."

NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the Florida home of its space shuttle fleet, was hit by both Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Frances in recent weeks. The agency's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, where the shuttle's external tanks are built, closed in preparations against Hurricane Ivan earlier this week, Covey said.

"NASA will try to fit that into the milestone schedule and see how they're affected," he added.

Last year, CAIB investigators released 29 findings and recommendations for NASA to address, 15 of them before the space agency returned its shuttle fleet, grounded since the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew on Feb. 1, 2003, to flight status. To date, NASA has completely met five of those recommendations, with at least one more on the way in upcoming weeks.

Recommendations that may be closed out in the immediate future include an overall plan for the implementation of independent safety and technical organizations, and the redesign of a bolt-catcher system designed to protect the orbiter from explosive bolt pieces during the separation of solid rocket boosters.

External tank a challenge

Task group officials said the biggest challenges ahead for NASA pertain to modifications to the space shuttle's external tank.

NASA engineers have modified the tank to prevent the shedding of insulating foam during launch, but a complete analyses of the new tank will most likely not be completed until February 2005, Stafford said.

NASA is currently targeting March 2005 for its first return-to-flight mission STS-114 with the Discovery shuttle.

"The long pole in the tent right now is the tank," Stafford said. "The validation of these items on the tank are the major [challenges]."

Stafford and Covey did say that NASA officials are gaining ground in work to develop repair capabilities for astronauts should they discover damage to their spacecraft's heat resistant tiles of reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) panels in orbit. Foam damage to the RCC panels on Columbia's left wing during launch is believed to have led to its destruction upon reentry.

"What they will have is a very limited ability to repair RCC," Covey said of NASA's return to flight missions.

Safe Haven

While not an immediate recommendation under the CAIB report, the Stafford-Covey group is looking the potential of using the International Space Station (ISS) as a 'safe haven' for shuttle astronauts should their orbiter be found unfit to return to Earth.

"It's a down the road type of issue," Stafford said, adding that the task group has conducted its own fact finding studies to determine the availability of necessary ISS consumables for such an occasion.

Current plans call for a resource list depicting the minimum equipment required to be functional aboard the ISS to enable its use as a potential safe haven, task group officials said.

Covey said the safe haven concept is only part of the entire return-to-flight whole, which centers on preventing damage to the space shuttle and preparing for any possible contingency.

"First we need to mitigate any debris that may be unexpected and cause damage, have the ability to find that damage and repair it, and if not repair then have a safe haven," he said. "It kind of has to all hang together, you can't pull it out separately."

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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.