April 7, 2005

Shuttle Astronauts Eager to Get Into Space

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) -- As she prepares to return a crew of astronauts to space, shuttle commander Eileen Collins said Thursday her crew won't fly if NASA doesn't meet a task force's safety recommendations.

"If we ever get to the point where a recommendation is not filled in anyone's mind, we are not going to fly," the retired Air Force colonel said as she sat alongside her six-member crew during a news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But the space agency's only female commander said she is confident NASA has met all the requirements - and exceeded some.

"We have come a long way, and in that respect, we are ready to fly this mission," she said, adding neither the task force nor the space agency's work is complete.

"Frankly, at this point, I am not worried," she said.

So far, the agency has met seven of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's 15 recommendations for resuming shuttle flights. Another is on the verge of being fulfilled, and virtually all the paperwork for the remaining seven has been submitted to the task force overseeing NASA's return-to-flight effort.

In late March, the task force put off a meeting to assess NASA's progress, saying it didn't have the information it needed. The meeting has not been rescheduled.

"I have complete confidence when we launch we will be ready to," flight director LeRoy Cain said Thursday. "We now have a much better appreciation for some areas of risk where before we didn't."

Discovery, which made it to the launch pad early Thursday morning, is scheduled to lift off May 15 at the earliest. Until then, the crew will continue spacewalk, entry and landing training.

The upcoming mission to the international space station would be the first since space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas in February 2003, killing the seven astronauts aboard as they returned from orbit.

Investigators determined Columbia was brought down by a hole in the leading edge of its left wing, caused when a piece of insulating foam broke off its external tank and struck the wing during liftoff. The searing gases of re-entry entered the gash and melted the wing, leading to the breakup of the shuttle.

"I think all of us are better people, as well as better astronauts, better managers, better flight controllers because of what we have learned from Columbia," Collins said. "We need to continue to learn."

When the shuttle returns to orbit, Collins said her crew will remember those who didn't make it back aboard Columbia.

"The crew members were our friends, and we miss them very much," she said. "The return-to-flight effort has not been easy, but because of the work we have done, we are stronger, we are smarter and we are more humble. And we're safer."


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