WASHINGTON - Despite the Columbia disaster, NASA officials are forging ahead with plans to upgrade the shuttle fleet to keep it flying until at least 2015 and possibly several years longer, a senior space agency official said yesterday.
Michael C. Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the International Space Station and space shuttle programs, said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is reviewing 60 possible improvements to the three remaining shuttles - including some to address issues raised after the Columbia disintegrated as it was returning to Earth on Feb. 1.
"There are many things we can do to improve the shuttle fleet," Kostelnik said at NASA headquarters here.
He said plans call for the orbiter to remain the cargo-carrying "workhorse" of the space program for at least 12 more years, even if a new orbital space plane - meant to ferry astronauts to the space station - moves from the drawing board to reality in the next decade.
In that time, NASA also will explore designs for a space vehicle to replace the shuttle.
The budgets for these three programs - shuttle, orbital space plane and the "next-generation" vehicle - are sure to be debated in Congress this year and next. Each could cost billions of dollars; NASA's current budget is $15.4 billion a year.
The briefing yesterday followed a meeting last week in Louisiana at which NASA and its contractors discussed what would need to be done to extend the life of the world's first fleet of reusable space vehicles. Columbia flew the initial shuttle mission in 1981.
Kostelnik stressed that NASA might yet shift course if the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, appointed by the agency, finds flaws with the shuttle fleet that would prevent a safe resumption of flight.
Still, his comments showed that the program enjoys support within the Bush administration.
NASA, Kostelnik said, could not yet disclose details on the potential shuttle enhancements or what they would cost. The Bush administration's new budget seeks $379 million for space shuttle upgrades in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and $1.7 billion over five years.
Kostelnik, a retired Air Force major general, told reporters that the agency would move to solve one much-discussed problem: debris falling from an external tank when shuttles lift off.
The accident board is investigating whether damage from such debris, possibly foam insulation, led to the Columbia accident.
While reaffirming support for the shuttle fleet, Kostelnik acknowledged that NASA still might choose to mothball it before 2015. He also speculated on the possibility that shuttles could be flown robotically.
Also yesterday, NASA announced that a magnetic flight tape recovered from Columbia's wreckage appeared to be well-preserved and could yield important clues about the disaster, which killed all seven on board.
Melissa Motichek, an agency spokeswoman, said that "by appearances only," the tape "looks good." But investigators have not yet examined the data on the 9,400 feet of tape in detail.
The recorder and its tape were discovered in eastern Texas last Wednesday, one of more than 24,000 pieces of debris uncovered in a huge ground search.
NASA believes the tape stopped recording about the time the shuttle broke apart above Texas. It had recorded Columbia's launch 16 days earlier and was activated again for the start of descent.
The recorder was collecting data from about 800 sensors on the fuselage, wings, tail and engines, and measuring temperature, pressure, strain, vibration, acoustics and acceleration, officials said.
Nick Anderson writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.