NASA's New Chief to Scrutinize Shuttle Launch Decision

Former NASA Chief Says Ares I Rocket Two Times Safer
Michael Griffin, 11th Administrator of NASA, at his Senate confirmation hearing on April 12, 2005. (Image credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard)

Discovery is scheduled to blast off as early as May 15. That date is inquestion because of a critical engineering review and stack of paperwork thatstill need to be completed. The review is scheduled for Tuesday at KennedySpace Center, and Griffin will be there with other NASA managers.

"I have no illusions aboutthe fact that I am the person in the chain of command least knowledgeable aboutthe full details of shuttle operation and its readiness for return to flight,"said Griffin, who took over NASAon Thursday.

"I will make certain thateveryone has given me the most convincing technical arguments on why it's OK tolaunch - if it is OK to launch - before we commit to going ahead," he toldreporters.

The task force overseeing NASA's return-to-flight cannot offerany guidance without the results of Tuesday's design certification review. Ithad hoped to issue a final opinion on NASA'sreadiness to launch a full month in advance, no longer possible if NASA holds to a May 15 launch date.

Griffin said he willseriously consider the task force's determination as to whether the spaceagency has complied with all 15 return-to-flight recommendations put forth bythe Columbia Accident Investigation Board. But the launch decision isultimately NASA's, regardless ofwhat the task force concludes, he said.

Griffin, a rocket scientistwith seven degrees, said he will rely on shuttle managers and engineers whohave been working since the Columbia tragedy to resolve technical problems.

A chunk of foam insulationfrom the external fuel tank broke off during Columbia's liftoff and slammedinto the left wing, creating a hole that led to the shuttle's breakup duringre-entry in February 2003. All seven astronauts on board died. The fuel tankhas since been modified to prevent any large pieces of foam from coming off.

Griffin said there is stillconsiderable uncertainty about how effective any repair would be to a damagedshuttle in orbit. "But the clearance for return to flight cannot be simply a'go' or 'no-go' decision based on, can you repair a tile in orbit," he said.

As for the aging HubbleSpace Telescope, Griffin said as soon as Discovery returns from theinternational space station, he will institute an internal review on sending ashuttle for one final service call to the observatory.

His predecessor, SeanO'Keefe, decided more than a year ago to call off the last mission to Hubble.He refused to reconsider, saying the mission to extend the telescope's life wastoo dangerous in the wake of the Columbia catastrophe.

        Fixing NASA: Continuing Coverage ofSpace Shuttle Return to Flight

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