[FPSPACE] CAIB Chairman Okays Shuttle Flight
zirconic1 at earthlink.net
Thu Jun 30 17:03:46 EDT 2005
Columbia Investigator Fine With NASA
By Marcia Dunn
AP Aerospace Writer
posted: 30 June 2005
11:25 a.m. ET
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) --The chief investigator of the Columbia disaster said Wednesday he's fine with NASA resuming shuttle launches in just two weeks, even though the space agency falls short of making three safety improvements he called for in 2003.
"It sounds to me like they're ready to go,'' retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. said in an interview with The Associated Press. `As far as what I know, they have taken all the steps necessary to be ready to fly in July.''
Gehman said the accident investigators never meant NASA had to carry out to the letter the changes recommended for the shuttle. "We didn't want it to be a poison pill,'' he said of one of the especially vexing improvements.
Like the astronauts and others at NASA, Gehman seems to accept that not all risk can be removed. "I would not use the word 'safe''' to describe spaceflight, he said, even with all the shuttle improvements of the past 2 1/2 years.
"I think the American people and I think most of Congress do not realize how risky these flights are,'' said the man who oversaw nearly seven months of investigation and debate about why Columbia fell from the sky on Feb. 1, 2003.
It was the first public comment on the subject by the chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board since an advisory group concluded Monday that NASA had not fulfilled three of the board's most critical recommendations. Gehman spoke by telephone from Georgia, where he is at work on his latest assignment, serving on President Bush's military base-closing commission. The job may keep him from attending the upcoming launch of shuttle Discovery.
The return-to-flight oversight group found that despite considerable progress by NASA, three of 15 recommendations had not been fully met. The external fuel tank is still not immune from falling foam and ice at liftoff, the shuttle itself is still not hardened enough against launch damage, and the astronauts still lack the means of reliably fixing gashes in their orbiting ship.
A hole in Columbia's left wing, put there by a 1.67-pound chunk of fuel-tank foam insulation during launch, led to the spacecraft's destruction on its return and the deaths of all seven astronauts.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said Tuesday the space agency has done the best it can to remedy all the problems that existed when Columbia went down. Unless something new comes up, NASA is pressing toward a launch as early as July 13, he said.
"At this point, we must say that we have reduced the level of risk due to debris damage to an acceptable level ... or we must say that we don't want to fly the shuttle again because we do not have a better technical approach to dealing with it,'' Griffin told the House Science Committee.
Griffin and top shuttle managers gathered at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday to assess Discovery's flight status. They hope to set an official launch date Thursday at the conclusion of the two-day review.
Gehman said he and his fellow investigators never meant for the space agency to eliminate all debris from the fuel tank, or to be able to fix a hole of any size. "Some of the wording we left vague and open-ended on purpose,'' he explained.
The best NASA can come up with is a plug for a 4-inch-wide hole, and it's uncertain how well the device will work in space. The gash that doomed Columbia was believed to be about 6 to 10 inches.
The investigation board spent hours struggling over the wording of the recommendation involving orbital repair.
"We tried to word it that would require them to start an enormous effort to develop an on-orbit repair capability,'' Gehman said. "At the same time, we didn't want it to be a poison pill that would cause the program to be shut down.''
The board's underlying message was, he said, "Do the best you can.''
The fact that NASA now has the ability to look for gashes in the shuttle's thermal shielding and analyze the damage - and, thanks to management cultural changes, has the keen desire to do so - is the kind of progress Gehman was hoping for two years ago.
"If they do find something that's terribly wrong, they have alternative plans, none of which they had before,'' he said.
NASA's ultimate directive, from Gehman, is to continuously strive for improvement between now and 2010, when the three remaining shuttles are retired to make way for a new spacecraft intended to fly into orbit and then on to the moon and Mars.
It's not the next mission Gehman worries about - it's the 10th one from now.
"The next flight will be as safe as they can make it,'' he said. "But I'm worried that pressure of schedule and manifest and complete cost and all that kind of stuff will sneak back in and then, lo and behold, efforts at risk assessment, risk management and safety will once again pay the price."
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