NASA Tackles Delays, Public Safety, in Return to Flight Report

Despitesome delays, NASA is still hoping to launch its first shuttle flight in twoyears this May and has drawn plans to protect the public from danger when that orbitercomes back to Earth, shuttle program officials said Tuesday.

"For thefirst time, NASA managers will have the tools and the rules to factor in publicsafety to flight policy," said Bryan O'Conner, NASA chief of safety and missionassurance, during teleconference with reporters.

In the eventof an off-nominal reentry, such as minor damage to an orbiter or the loss offlight control redundancy, a shuttle could be redirected to back-up landingstrips at Edwards Air Force Base in California or in White Sands, New Mexico, O'Connersaid.

The newrules are part of a 288-page report released Tuesday that documents theagency's progress in returning its space shuttles to flight status.

NASA has addressedalmost half of the 15 recommendations that Columbia accident investigators saidshould be met before the next shuttle launch, though eight still remain open. Anindependent task force - led by former astronauts Thomas Stafford and RichardCovey - in charge of evaluating NASA's return-to-flight progress is expected toreview those eight issues on March 31.

"Hopefully,some or all of those will be closed then," said Michael Kostelnik,NASA's deputy associate administrator for the shuttle and International SpaceStation programs. "[But] we're clearly in a position to slip in our schedule aswe need to meet our goals."

NASA'sthree remaining space shuttles have been grounded since the Columbia orbiterbroke up during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its seven-astronaut crew.Debris from the orbiter rained down over Texas and Louisiana during theaccident. Since then, NASA has spent the last two years working to enhanceshuttle safety and is currently targeting May 15 for the launch of its first return-to-flightshuttle, the STS-114 mission aboard Discovery.

Recentdelays in orbiter processing could push further into Discovery's current launchwindow, which closes on June 3.

Last week,shuttle officials delayedDiscovery's March 18 rollover from its hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB)due to the need for additional wiring work after engineers found evidence ofchafing in the wiring of the Endeavour orbiter. While the delay has eaten away ata five-day reserve for orbiter processing, the May 15 launch date is stillthe current target, shuttle officials said.

"Right nowis not the right time for the decision of whether or not we'll make [May] 15thor not," said Bill Parsons, NASA's space shuttle program manager, during thebriefing. "It's obvious that we have milestones to achieve."

Parsonssaid that as of today, Discovery is scheduled for VAB rollover on March 28 and,seven days later, should rollout to its launch pad. A vital tanking test ofthe orbiter's external tank is currently set for mid-April.

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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.