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The chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board agreed Wednesday to reconvene his panel in a year to analyze NASA’s efforts to increase the safety of the space shuttle. Ret. Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., the chairman, was asked in a congressional hearing if he and the board members could report in a year on how vigorously the space agency is following the board’s recommendations.

“If asked, we will serve,” Gehman said. “We know exactly where to go and where to look.”

He said it would not take long for the 13-member panel to determine if NASA is fulfilling its promise to follow the long list of recommendations included in the board’s accident investigation report.

House Science Committee chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., made the request during hearings on NASA’s preliminary plan to follow the recommendations. NASA released its plan Monday.

Asked by Boehlert if he would approve the reconvening of the board, NASA leader Sean O’Keefe replied: “By all means. We are always anxious for the input.”

Gehman said he had talked to the members of the panel about a follow-up study and that the group had agreed.

O’Keefe quickly responded, “So ordered.”

The board reported that space agency managers felt pressure to complete assembly of the International Space Station by next year, using the space shuttle. The report said the schedule pressure may have played a role in the Columbia accident.

But O’Keefe said National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers were putting safety ahead of schedule and will closely follow the board’s recommendations.

“We will return to flight when all the recommendations have been met and we are fit to fly — not one day before,” he said.

Cargo-only flights considered
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, told O’Keefe he believed the space shuttle was so unsafe that it should never again fly with people on board.

“We are putting American men and women at great risk to their lives to fly an orbiter that is 30 years old and cannot be made safe,” said Barton. He pledged to “do everything I can” to prevent astronauts from going up in the shuttle, which he called “inherently unsafe.”

“We’ve lost 14 men and women and if we keep flying we’ll lose 21 others in the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.

Instead, Barton said, the shuttle should be flown in a robotic mode, without people on board, to deliver cargo and supplies to the International Space Station.

O’Keefe said it may be technically possible to fly the space shuttle without a crew, operating the craft remotely, to haul cargo to and from the International Space Station. That is one option NASA is now studying, he said.

For people, O’Keefe said, the agency could, if provided the funds, develop an orbital space plane designed to launch people only to the space station.

Gehman said the board considered the very issues posed by Barton and concluded that, although it’s risky, the shuttle could be operated with people on board for at least two more years. But he urged the nation to build a new spacecraft system so that people fly on one type of ship and cargo on another.

“As soon as possible, we need to separate the crew from the cargo,” the retired admiral said.

Space shuttle Columbia came apart while returning to Earth on Feb. 1. The seven astronauts on board were killed. The investigators determined that the accident was caused by a hole in the shuttle’s thermal protection panels that allowed superheated gases to destroy the wing. The hole was punched in the panels by the high-speed collision with a piece of foam insulation during Columbia’s launch.

Seven astronauts died in 1986 when space shuttle Challenger came apart during launch. That accident was blamed on leakage of hot gas from a solid-fueled rocket booster joint. The booster joint was redesigned before the shuttle fleet returned to orbit.

O’Keefe has announced that NASA intends to complete each of the recommendations made the board before it returns the shuttle to orbit. The first flight, he said, would be no earlier than March, but he has pledged to not allow a launch until various engineering and safety committees are convinced that NASA has complied with all the recommendations.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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