Image: Collins
Astronaut Eileen Collins, the commander for the next shuttle mission, floats in a pool during an emergency egress training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Collins is wearing a training version of the launch and entry suit.

NASA’s aging space shuttles need fixing but aren’t inherently unsafe, investigators of the Columbia disaster said in their report Tuesday, leaving open the door for a new space mission by next spring. But space agency officials concede that their goal of launching the shuttle Atlantis sometime between March 11 and April 6 may be too lofty a target.

The report supports a return to space at “the earliest date” with safety as the top priority.

“If we thought the shuttle was unsafe, we would have said so,” retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., the board’s chairman, said at a news briefing. “That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of things they need to do to improve the safety of the shuttle.”

While supporting continued use of the spacecraft — designed nearly 30 years ago — the Columbia board also said the aging shuttle should be replaced as quickly as possible.

“Because of the risks inherent in the original design of the space shuttle, because that design was based in many aspects on now-obsolete technologies, and because the shuttle is now an aging system ... it is in the nation’s best interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible ...,” the report said.

The report called previous failed attempts to develop a replacement vehicle “a failure of national leadership,” and said it hoped that a new vehicle system could be developed by 2010.

Before the shuttle flies again, board members want NASA to set up a new office to enforce technical engineering standards and to reorganize the liaison office between the shuttle program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA must also find a way to do in-orbit inspections and upgrade its system of picture-taking during launches and in orbit so that images can be used for troubleshooting, the board report says. The space agency has already begun taking steps to do that.

George “Pinky” Nelson, who flew on Discovery as part of the first crew to fly a shuttle after the 1986 Challenger disaster, said he thinks a return to flight by springtime is ambitious.

“My gut feeling is that they’re being optimistic, but who knows? They’re competent folks,” said Nelson, who is a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

The report said the remaining three shuttles must also undergo rigorous physical checks for signs of aging, such as metal corrosion, before 2010.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe will have the final word on the timing of the next shuttle flight, but he will be advised by a task force that charged with making sure all the needed improvements have been made. NASA will present a return-to-flight plan to Congress next week.

“Our journey into space will go on,” O’Keefe told NASA employees in Washington.

Four crew members are already training in Houston on mock-ups of the Atlantis and the international space station. They are commander Eileen Collins, pilot James Kelly, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and mission specialist Stephen Robinson. Other crew members will be named later.

The task of the next mission is still uncertain, but it could include bringing back the next two-man crew on the space station. Astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri are scheduled to be launched to the space station in a Russian Soyuz vehicle in October.

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

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