WASHINGTON - A divided advisory group concluded yesterday that NASA had failed to fully meet three key recommendations for safely returning the space shuttle to flight, including eliminating all critical launch debris and developing a way to repair the ship's heat shielding in orbit.
Although embarrassing to NASA, the findings by the Stafford-Covey Task Group are not expected to postpone the planned launch of Discovery in July. Members of the panel who spoke yesterday after their final public meeting in Washington lauded NASA's efforts to improve the shuttle and said yesterday's verdict does not mean that the ship is unsafe.
"From an operational readiness to fly, the data they presented to us so far says it's safe to fly," said panel member Joseph Cuzzupoli.
Findings not binding
The panel's conclusions are not binding. NASA officials have said consistently that while they value the task group's role, space agency managers ultimately will decide whether and when to resume shuttle launches.
The group's action came as little surprise after weeks of debate on whether two years of important safety improvements made by NASA met the intent of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
The shuttle Columbia broke up while returning from orbit in 2003 after a chunk of foam insulation fell from the external fuel tank during launch and smashed a hole in the leading edge of the ship's left wing. The resulting breach allowed blowtorch-like gases to eat away the wing during the shuttle's fiery plunge through the atmosphere.
One of the more contentious issues was how literally the advisory group would interpret a recommendation to "develop a practicable capability to inspect and effect emergency repairs to the widest possible range of damage" for shuttle flights to the International Space Station.
During Discovery's 12-day mission, astronauts plan to test five methods of repairing damage from debris strikes. Although the repair kits would be available if there were an emergency, none is certified or offers a proven capability.
"We found that NASA fell short of meeting that recommendation, although they had put forth a yeoman's effort in coming up with all of the options they could conceive of," said panel member Jim Adamson.
A 'difficult' problem
NASA managers said engineers have been slow to make technical breakthroughs despite the agency's best efforts.
"You can't legislate that people should be smart," NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said yesterday. "We have spent a goodly sum of money, many millions of dollars, trying to figure out how to do this and we've not yet been successful. It's a very difficult technical problem."
The advisory group found that NASA also failed to meet a recommendation to begin a program to eliminate the shedding of debris from the external fuel tank.
The space agency has redesigned parts of the tank and instituted manufacturing changes to prevent foam or ice from breaking off. A lengthy review of debris risks by NASA concluded last week that the risk of foam or ice damaging the shuttle was "acceptable."
Task group members praised the efforts for making the tank safer. However, NASA's inability to state definitively that all sources of possibly critical debris had been eliminated and remaining uncertainty about ice impacts led the panel to find that the recommendation had not been met.
"We have said that NASA has not eliminated all critical debris," Adamson said. "While that's true, we also say they have significantly reduced debris and we are very convinced that while they may not have fully met the recommendation's intent as we have defined it, they have significantly improved on all of these things."
Yesterday's meeting concludes a two-year effort by the panel, formed in June 2003 and led by former astronauts Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey.
The group was formed after the Columbia disaster to measure how well the shuttle program has complied with the accident board's recommendations. Three subgroups comprising 26 scientists, engineers, policy experts and aerospace executives spent months assessing NASA's compliance with a wide range of management, operational and technical issues.
The completion of the panel's work sets the stage for Discovery's flight readiness review, scheduled for tomorrow and Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center. Shuttle managers from across NASA will meet to determine whether the mission is prepared to lift off in July and, if so, set an official launch date.
"As an engineer, I know that a vigorous discussion of these complex issues can make us smarter," Griffin said in a statement yesterday. "I anticipate, and expect, a healthy debate in our upcoming flight readiness review."
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