Image: Atlantis in March
In a NASA photo from March, the shuttle Atlantis is towed away from the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atlantis is currently being processed for flight. NASA says concerns about inadequate inspection of the shuttle's nose cap, visible at the very tip of the spacecraft, could prompt additional delays in the launch schedule.

The space shuttle fleet’s return to flight has been postponed to no earlier than September 2004, NASA executives confirmed Friday. The space agency said additional time was needed for developing shuttle repair procedures and conducting impact studies in the wake of February’s Columbia tragedy.

Until now, the official word was that Atlantis would be launched no earlier than next March, and more likely next summer. However, Bill Readdy, NASA’s associate administrator for spaceflight and head of a panel overseeing the shuttles’ return to flight, told reporters that the “no earlier than” date would be shifted to Sept. 12, 2004. That change was in line with recommendations that were first reported Thursday by

Readdy attributed the delay to the need to develop repair procedures for the shuttle’s thermal protection system, to continue impact testing and to study the process of “foam liberation” from the shuttle’s external tank.

Those issues were raised during the investigation of the Feb. 1 breakup of the shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven astronauts aboard. In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that Columbia’s left wing suffered a mortal wound during its Jan. 16 ascent to orbit when a piece of foam insulation struck the wing’s reinforced carbon-carbon edge. The resulting breach allowed hot gases to enter the wing during re-entry 16 days later and destroy the shuttle, investigators said.

The investigation board recommended that NASA take steps to minimize the risk of harm from flying foam, develop new methods to inspect space shuttles while in orbit and come up with a plan to repair damage to the shuttle’s tiles or reinforced panels if necessary.

In addition to the other safety measures, Readdy said NASA would build an extension boom for the shuttle robot arm to conduct in-orbit surveys of the entire ship.

“I can’t tell you whether or not we’re going to have more [repairs] creep in over time, whether we’re going to come up on some technical hurdles,” Readdy said. “I can almost guarantee that this is going to be a long, uphill climb back to return to flight. But I’ll guarantee you that we’re getting an awful lot smarter about this.”

Concerns about inspection
Readdy also confirmed earlier reports hinting that an inspection of the shuttle Atlantis’ nose cap was “documented incorrectly.”

NASA officials making return-to-flight preparations had called into question whether the metal framework inside Atlantis’ nose cap was checked properly for corrosion during a maintenance overhaul in 1998.

The nose cap has a metal framework covered with the same kind of reinforced carbon-carbon that became the focus of the Columbia investigation.

Citing interviews with unnamed shuttle engineers, USA Today reported Thursday that an engineer told officials the nose cap was only partially inspected during the overhaul because it was not known at the time that the metal beneath the nose cap could corrode. An unknown shuttle worker incorrectly recorded that the full inspection had been done, according to USA Today’s account.

Since that time, corrosion beneath the cap has been found and fixed on the other two shuttles in the fleet, Discovery and Endeavour.

What next?
To check for signs of metal corrosion, NASA workers and contractors might run ultrasound or electric current tests on Atlantis’ nose cap or conduct a structural inspection. The nose cap also may be sent back for inspection by its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Vought Systems Corp. in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said the launch window that extends from about Sept. 12 through Oct. 10, 2004, represents “the best planning date for the information that we know today” and gives NASA a reasonable amount of time in which to accomplish everything.

The next mission, a trip to the international space station, will be essentially a test flight to assess all the repairs that might be needed to find and fix a hole caused by launch debris. An extra flight will be added to the shuttle lineup, as early as November 2004.

Because of a new safety requirement for daylight launches in order to photograph any debris strikes and check the fuel tank for missing foam insulation, NASA is extremely limited in the number of days it can send a shuttle to the space station. Half the days in any given year are blacked out.

If Atlantis is not off the ground by mid-October, NASA would have no other days left in 2004 except for a small window in November.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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