June 28, 2005
Panel: NASA Fails to Meet Safety Terms
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Despite more than two years of painstaking work, NASA has failed to meet the most important safety recommendations for getting space shuttles flying again following the Columbia tragedy, an oversight panel says.
The task force concluded in its final meeting Monday that the space agency still does not fully comply with three of the toughest recommendations put forth by Columbia accident investigators in 2003.
But some of the group's members acknowledged in a news conference later in the day that the risks probably cannot be reduced significantly if the next launch - planned for July - is delayed another few months.
Task force chairman Richard Covey, a former shuttle commander, told reporters if he were younger and still an astronaut, he would not have a concern about flying.
"I think you need to look at what the agency has done, not necessarily at a scorecard," Covey said.
In its last public meeting, the return-to-flight task force determined that NASA, while making considerable progress, has been unable to eliminate the possibility of dangerous pieces of foam and ice from breaking off the external fuel tank and striking the shuttle at liftoff.
In addition, NASA still does not have a clear idea of all the potential threats from ice, and still lacks a practical way for astronauts to fix holes and other damage caused by flyaway launch debris, the group said.
It was not immediately clear if NASA would further delay its upcoming launch in light of the task force's assessment. In a statement following Monday's meeting, Administrator Michael Griffin said he welcomed different points of view and expected "a healthy debate" in this week's flight review by top shuttle managers.
Monday's findings came after a deliberate and prolonged discussion by the 26-member task force marked by some dissent. Covey said he would present a summary report to NASA before its leaders gather later this week to discuss shuttle readiness and set a formal launch date for Discovery.
NASA has been aiming for a liftoff of Discovery as early as July 13 on the first mission since Columbia's destruction during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.
Covey stressed that the three recommendations debated Monday represented the most technically challenging of the 15 put forth by Columbia accident investigators as being essential for the resumption of shuttle flights.
The task force previously found that NASA has complied with those 12 other recommendations considered essential for the resumption of shuttle flights.
While NASA has come up with good techniques for inspecting the shuttle in orbit, it does not meet the intent of the Columbia investigators' recommendation for having the capability to make emergency repairs in space, the task force said. The space agency has also put off long-term improvements to the shuttle's thermal shielding because of the fleet's planned retirement in 2010, making full compliance with the recommendations impossible in some cases, members noted.
Task force member Joseph Cuzzupoli, a Kistler Aerospace Corp. vice president, said NASA got a fast and early start in understanding the foam-loss problem, and minimized and reduced the amount that can come off.
A suitcase-size chunk of insulating foam came off Columbia's external fuel tank during liftoff in January 2003 and pierced the left wing, damage that proved mortal during re-entry two weeks later. All seven astronauts were killed.
Cuzzupoli noted that the equally menacing problem of ice building up on the tank once filled with super-chilled fuel was tackled late - just a few months ago.
"Foam is characterized pretty good," Cuzzupoli said. "The ice story is still coming together."
Concern over ice prompted NASA, in the spring, to delay Discovery's flight to the international space station from May to July.
Griffin has insisted for weeks that he and his top managers will have the final say on when and whether it's safe to resume shuttle launches, regardless of what advisory groups like the task force say.
Task force member James Adamson, a former astronaut, said it is NASA's job - not the task force's - to determine whether the risks are acceptable and whether it's safe for Discovery to fly.
"Quite honestly," Covey said, "we were trying to stay away from being someone who gave a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on whether it's OK to fly. We weren't going to do that."
He added, "Is it a miss if you're at 95 percent?"
On the Net:
Return to flight task force: www.returntoflight.org