August 18, 2005

No shuttle launch before March, NASA says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The next launch of a space shuttle
will not be until March 2006, NASA officials said on Thursday.

"It looked like the early opportunities don't work for us,"
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for Space
Operations, told a news conference.

"From an overall standpoint we think really March 4th is
the time frame we are looking at."

The U.S. space agency is still trying to determine why a
large piece of foam broke off the shuttle Discovery's fuel tank
during launch last month, Gerstenmaier said.

The shuttle Columbia was torn apart when it re-entered
Earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003, after a piece of foam
insulation fell off its tank during launch and damaged its
wing. All seven of Columbia's crewmembers were killed.

Gerstenmaier, newly appointed to direct NASA's return to
human space flight, said March 4 was not a hard launch date but
a planning target. He said it might allow a more efficient use
of the shuttles Atlantis and Discovery in servicing the
International Space Station.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the space agency
was taking a careful approach.

"There is a change in thinking. I have changed the game on
shuttle thinking," Griffin told the news conference.

"We are not trying to get a specific number of flights out
of the shuttle system."

Griffin said NASA made a big mistake in not looking at the
foam issue sooner. Members of a panel examining the Columbia
disaster said on Wednesday that some of the problems still

"We in NASA didn't look in detail at foam shedding from the
tank for 113 flights and shame on us," Griffin said.

"Absolutely everyone in and out of NASA learned a lesson, I
hope, from that."

The loss of a chunk of foam during Discovery's launch was
"embarrassing," Griffin said.

"On the first flight after we started really paying
attention to foam, almost everything we did worked," Griffin

"So do I have a crisis of confidence in the team that
almost made everything work right? Of course not. We are going
to fix those things that we didn't get right."