Image: Space station
A NASA graphic shows "blind spots" (in pink) as well as places observable only from oblique angles (in orange) on the exterior of the international space station. Spy satellites and spacewalking astronauts may be needed to inspect those areas for potential damage.

NASA is beefing up exterior inspections of the international space station and making other improvements in the program as the result of a post-Columbia safety review.

The Space Agency on Thursday released its plan for safely keeping a crew aboard the space station without the help of the remaining three shuttles, grounded until at least next fall. Currently, smaller Russian spacecraft are taking crews and supplies to the station.

The 84-page report notes there is room for improvement, including the need for more and better inspections of space station wiring, equipment and outside surfaces, improved shielding against orbiting debris, and more complete monitoring of problems.

‘Harshly unforgiving'
“The Columbia tragedy serves as strong reminder that space flight is harshly unforgiving of engineering deficiencies, overconfidence, system or human error and inaccurate risk assessments,” the report stated.

Soon after Columbia disintegrated over Texas in February, NASA’s space station program began examining its own operations to identify safety risks that could be reduced. The team assessed every recommendation and observation put forth by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to see how they might apply to the space station.

One area of inadequacy was found to be external surveying.

Visiting space shuttles had routinely photographed the exterior of the space station, and now, without the shuttles flying, NASA worries that outside damage could go undetected.

NASA instituted a plan to survey the outside of the space station using external cameras; no serious problems have been uncovered. But not every corner of the outpost can be viewed by these cameras and will require help from satellites or spacewalking astronauts.

The station program agreed to take advantage of spy satellites, if needed, to spot outside damage.

Working with the Russians
NASA is working with the Russian Aviation and Space Agency to speed up work on additional shielding for the station’s living quarters, built by Russia, and to equip the Russian cargo ships and manned capsules with better protection from orbiting debris.

Thorough checks also will be conducted on internal wiring, and officials said they will evaluate whether additional inspections are needed. Some station components have been in orbit for five years.

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