June 28, 2005

NASA falls short on 3 shuttle safety issues- panel

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NASA failed to fully comply withthree safety recommendations issued after the fatal break-up ofshuttle Columbia, but available data indicates the shuttles aresafe to fly, an expert panel said Monday,

The panel said NASA has not eliminated the possibility thatdebris could fall from the shuttle's external tank and damagethe spacecraft, as it did in the Columbia disaster.

In addition, the panel said, the space agency has notmanaged to sufficiently "harden" the shuttle to preclude thepossibility of damage if the spacecraft is struck, and theagency has not crafted a reliable in-flight repair system incase of such critical damage.

However, members of the independent watchdog panel -- theStafford-Covey Commission -- stressed that NASA had improvedshuttle safety greatly in these three areas since Columbiadisintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all sevencrew members.

And panel members said at a news conference that while itwas not up to them to decide whether the shuttle fleet shouldreturn to flight next month, as it is scheduled to do, theysaid NASA has gone far to comply with recommendations of theColumbia Accident Investigation Board, known as CAIB.

"While we're saying they (NASA) may not have fully met theintent of CAIB, we're also saying they have made significantprogress toward reducing the likelihood that any of these badevents will happen," retired Army Col. James Adamson, a panelmember, said after the panel's final meeting.


"We feel that it is a safe vehicle to fly," said JosephCuzzupoli, another panel member. "... The data they presentedto us so far says it's safe to fly."

Richard Covey, the panel's co-chairman and a formerastronaut who flew on the first shuttle mission after the 1986Challenger accident, said he would not have a concern aboutflying on shuttle Discovery, which is set for launch sometimebetween July 13 and July 31.

The three acknowledged the CAIB recommendations wereextremely challenging and that in some areas, NASA went aboveand beyond what was recommended. And they added that they wererequired to give a "binary" response to NASA's progress -- ayes or no answer -- when substantial progress had been madethat fell short of full compliance but was still a significantimprovement.

Covey said the panel's full report will be given to NASAAdministrator Michael Griffin before a two-day Flight ReadinessReview that is set to begin Wednesday. NASA's final decision onwhether the shuttle should return to flight as scheduled isexpected Thursday.

Griffin was to testify on NASA's future before the U.S.House of Representatives Science Committee Tuesday.