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Shuttle’s Return To Flight – Still Risky Business

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- While the excitement of returning the space shuttle to flight is palpable, attention to detail to assure a safe flight dominates mission readiness.

Two former astronauts and a NASA leader in return to flight efforts underscored the risky nature of human spaceflight at the 21st National Space Symposium, being held here April 4-7.

"Were not going to cut corners just to get there", said Major General Michael Kostelnik, USAF (Retired), NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for the International Space Station and Space Shuttle.

NASA's projected flight of shuttle Discovery currently stretches over a May 15 to June 3 launch window, Kostelnik said, noting that the mission will still be risky.

"But it's the safest vehicle we've ever flown," he said during the "Return to Flight - All Systems Go" panel.

Flying within that 20 days of window will be "a major win," Kostelnik said. But he added, "it will go when it safely can."

Kostelnik detailed shuttle recovery and planning efforts, as well as the exhaustive modifications applied to the shuttle system. The most notable, he said, was the development of a lengthy boom that will be used to inspect a shuttle once on-orbit. Design, development and delivery of that flight hardware took just two years, he said, saluting that accomplishment.

Since the Columbia tragedy, work has led to the safest external tank ever flown, Kostelnik said. He cautioned that external tank foam may still be shed as Discovery ascends, but is "extremely confident" that no sizable foam pieces - like those singled out as causing the Columbia accident - will be observed departing the tank.

The upcoming launch still needs a go-ahead from the joint heads of the Stafford-Covey Task Force - led by veteran astronaut Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey - that is independently weighing how well NASA has meet the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).

Kostelnik said that readying Atlantis in parallel with Discovery "adds a lot of difficulty and challenge." Atlantis is being readied for its own mission later this year, but also prepped for flight in the event that Discovery's crew has encountered any return-to-Earth issues.

Vice Admiral Richard Truly, USN (Retired) -- a former astronaut and former NASA chief, spoke of the similarities and differences between the response to the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, noting it "was fairly chaotic" after Challenger and its crew were lost on liftoff. Aside from the massive technical issues, including the shuttle's solid rocket motors, they had to take a hard look at the entire shuttle system.

Human space flight "is a risky, risky business," Truly concluded. "It's not return to perfect is return to flight."

Former shuttle astronaut, Captain Michael McCulley, USN (Retired) , President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Space Alliance (USA), pointed out that the mindset and response to Columbia versus Challenger was a dramatic sea change.

Following the Challenger incident -- and as a still-to-fly astronaut at the time -- McCulley said he witnessed a complete lack of direction in moving forward. Following the Columbia accident, a far stronger leadership has emerged, he said.

Recovery efforts were started within hours after the Columbia accident, McCulley explained. The NASA-industry teamwork has been fully engaged in finding the problem, fixing the problem, and returning to flight, he said.

Now in his role at USA helping return the shuttle system to flight, McCulley said senior contractors are "not only allowed to speak...we're expected to speak" - a far different scene what he saw after the Challenger loss in January of 1986.

"Morale is very high right now because we smell launch," McCulley said.

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Leonard David
Leonard David

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.